Winners and losers from James Comey’s testimony
(CNN) — In the highest profile Congressional testimony in decades, fired FBI Director James Comey spent nearly three hours detailing his interactions with Donald Trump — a forced and awkward relationship defined, according to Comey, by a series of lies told about him by Trump.
I jotted down a bunch of notes about the good, the bad and the just plain strange — John McCain, I am looking directly at you — from Comey’s testimony in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
My best and worst are below.
* James Comey: You could tell the former FBI director had done this before and had prepared relentlessly for today’s hearing. He was relaxed — or as relaxed as you can be in a setting like this one — and low key. He was the textbook “Just the facts, Ma’am” G-man that we’re used to seeing in the movies. He seemed entirely ready for all the questions thrown at him. And while he made Trump’s life — and Republicans’ by extension — much more difficult, he also gave Republicans something to seize on with his description of former Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s insistence that he call the Clinton email investigation a “matter.” (More on that below.). If you hated Comey heading into this hearing, you left it feeling that way. But, for people more on the fence about him — and his role both in the 2016 election and after it — Comey did himself some good. Or at least he didn’t do himself any damage.
* Richard Burr/Mark Warner: Bipartisanship is a very hard thing to come by these days in Washington (or anywhere). But, Burr, the Republican chairman of the Intelligence Committee and Warner, the Democratic vice chair, ran a hearing that was the epitome of what people want from their government: Good, hard questions from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to a former public official. Listening to their opening statements, closing statements and the questions they asked in between, you’d be hard-pressed to know which one of Burr and Warner was a Republican and which was a Democrat. Plus, as a bonus for people like me who have to write on all this stuff, the hearing started on time and ended early!
* Angus King: The Maine Senator isn’t all that well known to people outside of his home state, where he spent eight years as governor before coming to Washington in 2013. This hearing should change that. King was the single best questioner of Comey in either party — he’s an independent who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate — as he repeatedly elicited substantive and informative answers on the former FBI director’s meetings with Trump as well as, by my count, three times Comey claimed Trump didn’t tell the truth about them.
* Daniel Richman: Comey said that, upon hearing of Trump’s tweet that recordings might exist of their conversations, he reached out to a longtime friend at Columbia Law School to make sure that some of the notes of his conversations with Trump leaked out — and, Comey hoped, triggered the appointment of a special counsel. That Columbia Law professor? Daniel Richman. And, yes, of course, the Columbia Law School website collapsed almost as soon as Comey mentioned it. Congrats, Daniel Richman! You are officially the most famous law professor in the country! (For today, at least.)
* “No fuzz”: Before today, I had never, ever heard this phrase before. But, it’s clearly one of Comey’s favorites as he used it at least twice as he sought to make sure a point was very clear. I typed “no fuzz” into Google. It’s apparently not a terribly common phrase but it is a band!
* Thomas Becket: Comey and Angus King found common ground on a famous quote from Henry II about Becket, who was then the Archbishop of Cahrterbury: “Will no one rid of me of this turbulent priest?” Becket was murdered by Henry’s men soon after. (Comey was comparing that situation to Trump’s “hope” that the FBI director could find a way to drop the investigation into fired national security director Michael Flynn.) Of course, Becket wound up dead so maybe he’s not a “winner” in the traditional sense. But he was later venerated as a Saint, so he’s got that going for him.
* Donald Trump: The good news for Trump? Legally speaking it may be tough to prove obstruction of justice because, as several Republican senators noted during Comey’s testimony, saying you “hope” an investigation gets dropped and actually telling the FBI director to drop the investigation aren’t the same thing. But, that’s about it in terms of good news. Comey repeatedly cast Trump as a liar, insisting that a number of claims made by the president about their interactions were totally false. He also said, with no equivocation, that Trump saying he hoped Comey could find a way to end the Flynn investigation amounted to a “directive” from the president of the United States. There was no smoking gun here. But, if this investigation ultimately comes down to Comey’s word versus Trump’s, the FBI director helped his credibility on Thursday– meaning that Trump’s took a hit.
* Jeff Sessions: It’s been a rough week for the Attorney General. First came the stories that he had fallen out of favor with Trump and even offered to quit unless the president allowed him to do his job. Then came Comey’s testimony. The former FBI director made clear that in the February 14 meeting in which Trump asked everyone to leave him alone with Comey, Sessions knew he probably shouldn’t have left — and seemed to linger. Then there is Comey’s recounting that when he told Sessions that Trump had to stop contacting him, the AG said nothing. (Comey, when pressed, suggested that Sessions may have made a “what can I do” shrug.) None of that makes Sessions look great. Or even good.
* Loretta Lynch: Not a good day for Attorney Generals! Comey said that during the 2016 campaign, Lynch, who was, at that point, the Attorney General, asked him to refer to the Clinton email investigation as a “matter” when speaking about it publicly. Comey added that he was aware that “matter” was the same way that the Clinton campaign was explaining the situation and that fact concerned him. Uh, yeah.
* John McCain: What. Was. That. McCain’s line of questioning — why had Comey closed the investigation into Clinton’s email server but not Russia’s meddling in the election (I think) — would have been odd no matter when it happened. But that McCan went last made it all the worse/stranger. I’ve read the transcript of his back and forth with Comey three times and I still don’t get what he was driving at.
* This New York Times story: Comey said that the Times story, which alleges that “Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election,” was almost entirely wrong. He didn’t, however, detail how. Still, not great.