WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump was right about this much: As he told NBC’s Lester Holt last month, former FBI chief James Comey, whom Trump had just fired, is a “showboat.”
As he sat before the Senate Intelligence Committee about to testify Thursday, Comey demonstrated that he knows how to set the stage in the theater of politics. Comey sat upright and expressionless as photographers snapped shots of his upstanding demeanor prior to his much-awaited testimony — one lawman challenging a sitting president before a Senate panel. Think: high noon.
In fact, Comey had set up his testimony brilliantly when he had the committee release a seven-page statement Wednesday in which he described five conversations he had with Trump concerning the FBI’s investigation into Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 election.
The statement had Washington buzzing as it disclosed that Comey began documenting his talks with Trump after their first encounter at Trump Tower on Jan. 6. Comey wrote of Trump’s inappropriate efforts to co-opt the FBI’s top G-man, by dangling the job before the man who loved the FBI, asking for his loyalty, suggesting that the FBI could let go a criminal investigation into former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, whom Trump had fired, and asking what Comey could do to “lift the cloud” of the Russian probe.
The White House denies that Trump asked for Comey’s loyalty and that he back off the Flynn probe.
In no time, local watering holes were offering specials to political junkies seeking to watch the hearing in a lubricated atmosphere. Insiders couldn’t wait to find out how Comey would follow his first act in the hot seat.
‘Lies, plain and simple’
After swearing an oath to tell the truth, Comey spoke about how Trump’s unceremoniously fired him on May 9. As to the reasons Trump gave for canning him, Comey said, “Those were lies, plain and simple.”
Comey didn’t seem too itchy on the trigger. He refused to say whether he believed Trump’s actions constituted obstruction of justice. “That’s (Special Counsel) Robert Mueller’s job to sort that out,” he said.
Comey also revealed that he had authorized his friends to leak memos he had written about conversations with Trump to the media “to prompt the appointment of a special counsel.”
Senate Democrats praised Comey liberally for standing up to Trump. But few Democrats voiced such respect in 2016 when Comey reopened an investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a home-brew server for government emails days before the November 2016 election. If Clinton had won in November, she likely would have fired Comey.
Fact is, Comey is the type of law enforcer so filled with his own rectitude that he has angered members of both parties with his willingness to go after politicians whom he believes crossed the line.
Especially when, in going after them, Comey has crossed the line himself. He crossed the line, the Department of Justice noted before Trump fired Comey, in announcing he would reopen the Clinton investigation before the election.
But also, Trump’s private attorney Marc Kasowitz noted after the hearing, Comey admitted that he leaked memos of privileged conversations with the president in order to influence the investigation. That’s not exactly impartial.
“We will leave it to the appropriate authorities to determine whether these leaks should be investigated along with all those others being investigated,” Kasowitz added.
On Thursday, Comey said he could not discuss why he thought Attorney General Jeff Sessions would recuse himself from the Russian investigation in an open hearing. Sessions did recuse himself — meanwhile, Comey’s refusal to say more about it leaves Sessions in a lonely spot in a cold city.
Comey’s insistence that Russian interference was real suggests that this story will not just go away.
Trump once suggested in a tweet that he may have taped conversations with Comey. Only if that Nixonian pronouncement is correct can Trump prove who has been telling the truth — the president or the lawman.
Comey is not infallible. In May, he gave inaccurate testimony about how often former Clinton aide Huma Abedin forwarded government emails to the laptop of her former husband. The next day, the FBI had to send out a correction.
And perhaps, as Comey admitted is possible, Trump and he misperceived things they said to each other.
Team Trump’s favorite takeaway is that Trump was not a subject of the Russian probe. Why wouldn’t Comey say so sooner?
Even to those who consider Comey to be too full of his own rectitude — Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., once called him “sanctimonious” — the fired FBI chief has enhanced his credibility by admitting to his role in leaks that supported him.
That shows a respect for how Washington likes to see things done — a lesson Trump has yet to learn.
Contact Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.