Part of the nightmare of Donald Trump’s reign is the way he’s conscripted us all into becoming the audience for a reality show about the survival of the republic. Going into Thursday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, pundits talked about how it would play as drama: Would it be an anti-climax, or would it provide exciting new twists? Conservatives adopted a pose of pre-emptive boredom, acting as if anything short of a screening of the Russian pee tape would be a letdown. A Politico piece by Rich Lowry, written after former FBI Director James Comey released his opening statement Wednesday, was headlined: “Comey’s Fizzle.”
But if Comey’s testimony wasn’t explosive, it’s only because Trump has forced us to become acculturated to the berserk. The utter shock of Comey’s firing, which was only a month ago, has mostly worn off. We’ve absorbed the stunning news that, according to Comey, Trump demanded his loyalty and asked him to quash the FBI’s investigation of fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. We’ve even gotten used to knowing that Trump boasted about Comey’s firing to Russian officials.
While Comey’s testimony didn’t deliver bombshells, if we take a step back, it was still staggering. First are the Godfather-like details of Trump’s barely coded threats to the straight-laced lawman, and Comey’s barely concealed contempt for Trump, who he said he suspected “might lie about the nature of our meeting.” Trump’s allies are pretending that Comey vindicated the president by testifying that he was not personally under investigation. A statement from Trump’s personal lawyer said, “In sum, it is now established that the President was not being investigated for colluding with the Russians or attempting to obstruct that investigation.” But the word was is doing a lot of work there. Comey went out of his way to note that the probe might turn to Trump, saying he hesitated to publicly say that Trump wasn’t being investigated because he’d have a “duty to correct” if that changed. At one point, Comey was asked, “Do you believe Donald Trump colluded with Russia?” His response: “It’s a question I don’t think I should answer in an open setting.”
We should pause to consider how extraordinary this is. A man who until last month sat atop the investigation into Russia’s meddling in our election cannot publicly confirm that the president of the United States was not conspiring against American democracy. Comey also hinted that members of Trump’s campaign may have been complicit with Russia. “I was fired in some way to change the way the Russia investigation was being conducted,’’ Comey said. “That is a big deal. On top of that, the Russia investigation itself is vital because of the threat. And if any American were part of that, that is a very big deal.’’
One American who might be more seriously enmeshed in the scandal than was previously understood is Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Comey said in his written testimony that he didn’t confide his anxieties about Trump to Sessions because he and his top FBI colleagues expected Sessions to recuse himself from the investigation. At the time the FBI officials made this determination, news had not yet broken of Sessions’ secret meetings with the Russian ambassador. Thus one big question going into the hearing was how Comey knew that Sessions was compromised. Sen. Ron Wyden asked it: “What was it about the attorney general’s own interactions with the Russians or his behavior with regard to the investigation that would have led the entire leadership of the FBI to make this decision?” Comey answered that leaders in the bureau “were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting, that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.”
Hopefully, these facts will come out soon. Indeed, Sen. Patrick Leahy announced plans to question Sessions about the Russia probe when he appears before the appropriations committee next week. The dam on the Trump Russia scandal didn’t break on Thursday, but it will keep leaking.