The Republican lawmakers on the U.S. House Intelligence Committee looked miserable on Monday – and rightly so.
They realized, of course, that the testimonies of FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers are a public relations disaster for U.S. President Donald Trump that they should steer clear of. But they also knew that they can’t afford to be seen as abandoning their president in his time of need. No wonder then that Trump, who was certainly following the proceedings on television, intervened in his own defense in a series of increasingly hysterical tweets while Sean Spicer contorted in front of the White House press corps again.
It could have been worse for Trump, but not by very much. If he were a boxer we would have said that a few more blows like these and he’ll be hanging on the ropes. Trump sustained a devastating uppercut when Comey confirmed publicly for the first time that the FBI was investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. He was jabbed again when Comey said there was “no information” to bear out Trump’s claim that former U.S. President Barack Obama had “wiretapped” Trump Tower. He was dealt a body blow when Rogers and Comey didn’t shy away from adopting the British description of Trump’s claim that their intelligence had carried out Obama’s wiretaps as “utter nonsense.” And on top of all those hits, Trump was humiliated when Comey refused to back away from his claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t simply want Hillary Clinton to lose the elections, he wanted Donald Trump to win.
The GOP members valiantly tried to steer the discussion toward the evil leakers who had made the public aware of the suspicions hanging over Trump, but besides the true believers, you could tell that their heart wasn’t in it. They tried to placate die-hard Trump fans by drawing analogies with Obama and Clinton, but the former is no longer president, the latter never will be and the comparisons don’t hold water anyway, because the two Democrats were never suspected of colluding with a hostile superpower. Every once in a while the Republicans tried to confront the FBI and NSA directors, but they took care not to appear too hostile. Many Republican voters may buy in to Trump’s random outbursts against the U.S. intelligence services, but most GOP politicians would still prefer to stay on the good side of the FBI, rather than the bad.
The Democrats, on the other hand, went to town with Comey and Rogers, though they did so with a bitter taste in their mouths. Frustrated by their unexpected loss in the elections and despondent over their currently listless party, the Democratic lawmakers, led by California’s Adam Schiff, were so pleased by Comey’s answers that they forced him to repeat them again and again. They read out damning news reports that they knew very well Comey and Rogers couldn’t respond to, just to give them airtime and get them into the protocol. They were having such a good time that some of them might have considered, for a split second at least, forgiving Comey for his deadly letter to Congress ten days before the elections about additional Clinton emails that ultimately amounted to nothing. They were certainly less forgiving of the fact that Comey failed to send a similar letter about Trump, even though he admitted on Monday that the FBI had been investigating the president’s ties to Russia since July.
The testimonies of Rogers and mainly Comey have damaged Trump’s image at a time when his approval ratings are already so low that they are biting into his core supporters. The new headlines about his ties with Russia certainly won’t make Trump’s life any easier at the start of a difficult week: Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court started on Monday; the GOP's ObamaCare replacement bill will come up for a vote in the House without a clear majority; the administration will appeal the decision to suspend Trump’s revised travel ban; his budget is garnering fierce opposition and Washington is trying to deal with increasing tensions with North Korea as well as frictions with major allies such as Germany and the United Kingdom. Having U.S. intelligence chiefs publicly plant clouds of suspicions over the president’s head certainly wont inspire new global confidence in American leadership.
But this isn’t the end of Trump – it’s not even the beginning of the end. It’s just another low point in Trump’s presidency, which hit the two-month mark only Sunday, even though it seems like it’s been at least two years. The FBI probe into Trump’s dealings with Russia could actually bring his presidency to a halt, but only if and when there are conclusive findings that he colluded with the Kremlin or that his advisers did so with his full knowledge. In the meantime, the debacle in the House Intelligence Committee is sure to enrage Trump and to spur him to hit back at his detractors. He might also light a whole new fire – as he tends to – in order to distract from the other ones he sparked. That’s the way it is with Trump: No matter how hard he gets clobbered, the real action only begins when he starts to hit back.
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