Bars in Brooklyn and Washington DC opened early on Thursday as the nation and the world sat gripped for two and a half hours of Senate testimony. The star witness: James Comey, former FBI director dumped by Donald Trump in May, at the very moment his agency was digging into the Trump campaign’s alleged connections with Russia. Comey had six years left in his term the day he was fired.
It was Very Serious Business in Washington, DC, but Comey didn’t let us forget what started this whole mess in the first place — a dossier of lewd allegations supposedly collected by the Russians to blackmail Trump, and happily published by BuzzFeed. Surely it could not be true. Surely Trump did not ask sex workers to urinate on him while lying in a bed at the Ritz Carlton Moscow, where he knew the Obamas had once slumbered.
But it was Comey’s unfortunate job to inform Trump about the dossier’s existence at their first meeting in January, and today he declined to publicly answer any questions about its veracity. That’s not a no, then.
In his much-anticipated appearance, the man who Trump derided as a “showboat” did not disappoint, despite his famous unmoving expression. Mandarins called before Senate estimates take note: this is how you do it.
Trump sacked Comey because he was conducting the FBI’s Russia investigation in a way that “irritated” the president, who then justified the decision with “lies, plain and simple”, according to the director. Comey also told his interrogators that Trump had directed him to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, defamed him, and demanded his “loyalty”.
The hearing followed the release of Comey’s sensational, surprisingly literary, written testimony a day earlier (how often does a statement to the Senate feature awkward stares, grandfather clocks and — Comey’s choice of word — “hookers”?). In that testimony, the former director revealed the details of some of his nine one-on-one conversations with Trump before his removal, recorded in memos after the encounters.
From Comey’s testimony comes the portrait of a creepy president with whom Comey did not want to spend time alone. Recall when Trump and Comey crossed paths in the White House — the director reached for a handshake, only to be drawn into a menacing embrace. “I really look forward to working with you,” the President whispered in his ear.
On January 27, Comey called off a date with his wife to dine with Trump instead, at the latter’s request. At the intimate White House dinner, Trump allegedly questioned whether Comey wanted to keep his job, then later in the evening demanded Comey’s loyalty.
“I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” Comey recorded the President saying.
Comey saw this as an attempt to set up a relationship of “patronage”.
“I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed,” Comey wrote. “We simply looked at each other in silence.”
In February, Trump asked Comey to stay behind after a counterintelligence meeting. Adviser/princeling Jared Kushner and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions tried to stay behind too, but Trump asked them to clear out.
“My impression was something big is about to happen,” Comey told the Senate committee.
That big thing is arguably the biggest bombshell of the entire affair: Donald Trump allegedly directed Comey to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, who was sacked after he misled Vice President Mike Pence about his interactions with the Russian ambassador.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said, according to Comey.
That raises the question of whether Trump committed an obstruction of justice, a criminal offence.
Ironically, Comey writes of Trump asking him to publicly confirm that Trump was not under investigation — which he wasn’t. But Comey hinted that Trump very probably was now, as part of a separate investigation by the Justice Department.
The fate of the presidency might now rest on a he said/he said battle between the two men — and there is clearly no love lost between them. Comey today admitted he was “hopelessly biased” on the wisdom of his firing, and that he had arranged for his memos to be leaked to The New York Times after his sacking. Following the testimony, Trump’s lawyer denied most of Comey’s story, saying his client had never demanded loyalty and painting Comey as a leaker.
Ever the tease, Comey hinted there was more to come: why did he suspect Jeff Sessions would recuse himself two weeks before he actually did so? How central is Flynn to the Russia investigation? And is any of the stuff in the infamous Steele dossier (of “pee tape” fame) true?
Whatever the case, whether Trump actually breached the law or not is less important than how it all looks. The Justice Department would almost certainly not charge a sitting president with a crime, meaning there would have to be enough political will to impeach Trump before he could ever have his day in court.
It’s the politics that matters, and Trump’s allies are already spinning the hearing, trying to shift the focus back to Obama’s attorney-general Loretta Lynch, frame Comey as a self-interested leaker, and — as a bewildered Senator John McCain tried to do with confusing results — imply Comey was soft on Hillary Clinton but tough on Trump. A notable absence from the spin room today was Trump himself, who refrained from tweeting at all during the hearing.
Ultimately, we are left to grapple with the same question Trump’s campaign and presidency have provoked virtually every day. What on earth does it take to bring this man down?