Politics

A Tale of Becket, McCain and Preet

Comey testimony provides a few moments of drama, bewilderment

Former FBI Director James B. Comey was the center of attention at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday, but several other actors and cultural references made their way into the picture as well. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

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.

LONDON - OCTOBER 22: Actor Dougray Scott (L) and Jasper Britton attend photocall to launch John Caird's new production of "Becket" at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket on October 22, 2004 in London. The play explores the tempestuous relationship between Thomas a Becket and King Henry II with Scott taking the title role. (Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)
Actor Dougray Scott, left, and Jasper Britton attend photocall to launch John Caird's new production of "Becket" at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket on October 22, 2004 in London. Scott played the doomed Becket, while Britton Henry II. (Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

“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.

California Rep. Brad Sherman had a prime seat behind Comey at Thursday’s hearing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
California Rep. Brad Sherman had a prime seat behind Comey at Thursday’s hearing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

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.

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