Because we live in the age of Donald Trump, in which truth is not exactly the coin of the realm, it may be tempting to understate the extraordinary nature of James Comey’s Senate testimony.
I can’t remember anything quite like it, and that includes the Watergate hearings. Under oath, Comey, the former head of the FBI, called the president a liar. Not just once, but repeatedly. Most damningly, Comey felt the need to write memos after each Trump meeting because, he said, “I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting.”
He confirmed the reporting that Trump had asked him repeatedly to pledge his personal “loyalty,” as if America were some kind of fiefdom, that Trump said he “hoped” he would drop the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn, that Comey regarded Trump’s Oval Office “hope” as a direct order, and that Trump, in any honest rendering of Comey’s testimony, was clearly trying to interfere with the FBI investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
Comey wouldn’t say whether he considered Trump’s actions obstruction but that he expected the special counsel would be looking into it. And in any case, he didn’t have to say it directly. He spent most of a morning making the case.
Comey did say he was stunned that Trump would invite an FBI director over for dinner. He was stunned that Trump cleared the Oval Office so he could talk to Comey alone. He was even more stunned that Trump would ask for what Comey described as a “patronage relationship,” and more stunned still by what he considered to be a not very subtle attempt by Trump at a quid pro quo — you leave Flynn alone; you keep your job.
And nearly as extraordinary as Comey’s testimony was the fact that the Republican senators on the Intelligence Committee, who mostly tried to diminish the seriousness of Comey’s narrative, did not once challenge Comey on the facts.
As far as the committee was concerned, this is the official record of Trump’s unusual set of meetings with the supposedly independent FBI chief. As Comey pointed out, he had had two meetings with Obama — one of them to say good-bye — and nine phone calls or meetings with Trump.
So we’re left with this: Comey repeatedly calling Trump an untrustworthy liar and, in Trump’s defense, Republican committee members offering none. This was, in fact, a metaphorical group nod — yeah, tell us something we don’t already know.
Marc Kasowitz, who is Trump’s lawyer, read aloud a written statement that did offer a defense and did say that Comey lied. He said Trump never asked for loyalty and never asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation. He also jumped on Comey’s admission that he had arranged for his memos to be leaked to the press in order to force the nomination of a special prosecutor. Kasowitz called Comey a “leaker,” and that much is apparently true, and also blockbuster news. FBI directors admit to leaks nearly as often as FBI directors call their bosses liars. It’s also true that after the leak, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel.
In any case, I don’t want to suggest that this is a watershed. Paul Ryan, true to his nature, tried to pass this off as Trump being new to the job, a novice who just didn’t understand the protocols, the boundaries, the, you know, rules. John McCain — now, officially, poor John McCain — stumbled while trying to pin a double-standard rap on Comey for still investigating the Russia connection while having let Clinton off the hook. It was bizarre and embarrassing. Marco Rubio, once again Lil Marco, weakly tried to defend his former rival, but afterwards said he wasn’t prepared to say whether or not Trump had tried to obstruct justice.
The sad truth, though, is that everyone knew Trump was a liar during the campaign and he was still elected. Don’t expect Republicans to abandon him now.
But what you can expect is the Russia “cloud” Trump said is hovering over his administration to grow into a full-blown storm, if we’re not there already. The practical lesson to be drawn here is that if you have anything to hide — and what president doesn’t? — you don’t fire your FBI director. These guys know too much.
And one thing Comey knew, because Trump admitted as much in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, is that he was fired because of the Russia probe. Once you have that fact in hand, the rest of the Comey story falls into place. Trump asked Comey to lay off Flynn, and when he didn’t, he fired him.
There was other news from Comey’s testimony. It turns out Jeff Sessions may be in this thing more deeply than we knew. Comey said Loretta Lynch intruded on the Clinton investigation and that it made the weak-stomached Comey “queasy.” This revelation also gave Comey room to make him look bipartisan in his queasiness.
But the explosive news was all about Comey and Trump. Angus King, the independent senator from Maine who is becoming the star of these hearings, asked Comey if his firing by Trump reminded him of the story of Henry II and Thomas Becket.
Comey immediately picked up on the prompt.
“It kind of rings in my ears as, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ ” he said.
That’s supposedly what Henry said to his aides back in the 12th century about Becket, the meddlesome archbishop of Canterbury. If you know your medieval history or just take a quick look through Wikipedia, you know that a group of knights, picking up on Henry’s suggestion, killed Becket, who would be canonized for his troubles.
It’s unlikely that Comey has any reasonable shot at sainthood (just ask Hillary Clinton). But, for the greater part of three hours, as millions watched from home and work and even from bars, the meddlesome Comey made clear his thoughts on how history might ultimately judge Trump, who, shockingly, failed to even tweet a response.
Photo via Ben Sutherland, Fickr: Creative Commons