The venue for Thursday’s much-anticipated testimony of James B. Comey left minimal space for disruptions or outbursts, with invited guests and members of the media occupying much of the hearing room.
But the theater of the former FBI director’s appearance did not disappoint. Comey was testifying publicly for the first time about the circumstances of his firing by President Donald Trump.
Senators on the Intelligence Committee generally stayed in the room throughout the hearing, being unusually attentive during the questions and answers from other senators.
The most laughter probably erupted during what was really a rather serious exchange between Comey and Maine Sen. Angus King.
Comey was discussing what he has described as Trump’s “hope” that Comey could let go of the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. And Comey referenced the murder of Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170.
“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” is the line Comey referred to. King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, then filled in the blanks on the history about how King Henry II of England said as much of Becket, only to have him killed the next day. The scene was immortalized in pop culture in the 1964 movie “Becket,” starring Richard Burton as the doomed cleric and Peter O’Toole as the monarch. The play version is frequently staged as well.
The most awkward moment might have come toward the end of the open session, when there was visible confusion about a line of questioning from Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican with an ex-officio seat on the Intelligence Committee.
McCain was not the only Republican lawmaker to ask Comey about his handling of the conclusion of the 2016 investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. But he seemed to have trouble with the idea that Comey could have completed that investigation while being unable to say whether there was any similar resolution to any investigation of potential Trump campaign ties to the Russian interference in last year’s election.
That led Comey to try to further say that the Clinton email matter was separate from anything related to Russian election interference.
“We have not announced, and there was no predication to announce, an investigation of whether the Russians may have coordinated with Secretary Clinton’s campaign,” Comey said.
Several unexpected faces were in attendance, with Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, having a prime seat reserved by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer. Bharara, a longtime associate of Comey who was also fired by Trump, was tweeting from the second row of the audience.
Other newsmakers in attendance included Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Bill Nelson of Florida. The two Democrats are not on the Intelligence panel, but watched from the front row. California Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman was in the audience as well, occupying a prime open seat behind Comey.