Will Comey or Trump Get More Attention on the Hill?
Testimony by FBI boss may mean more than meetings with presumptive nominee
All year long, most congressional Republicans have been keeping one eye anxiously closed when regarding the combative crusade of Donald Trump, and most congressional Democrats have been doing the same while watching the trust-related travails of Hillary Clinton.
Today, neither side can hope to continue looking away, since central figures for generating wariness in both campaigns will be on the Hill simultaneously:
Trump is bringing his uniquely vituperative style to breakfast with all the House Republicans at their Capitol Hill Club, then motorcading a few blocks north for a parallel session with GOP senators – just as FBI Director James B. Comey starts testifying in the House about Clinton’s “extremely careless” handling of classified information on her personal email while secretary of state.
Two of the central narratives of politically unique 2016 will literally be converging in Congress at the same time. Not only does this confluence threaten to give the Capitol a bipartisan case of presidential indigestion, but it makes it tough to predict which event will generate more news.
The answer will probably be Comey, if for no other reason than it’s easier to get a headline from one prominent person explaining his polarizing actions in public than from dozens of them maneuvering for political advantage in private.
Everything the FBI chief says will be on live television and under the hot lights of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. But all the sentiments expressed during Trump’s mutual sizing-up sessions with the Republican rank-and-file will happen behind closed doors.
More importantly, the hearing promises two fresher story lines than what’s probably going to emerge from the strained getting-to-know-you confabs.
Congressional Democrats, all of whom are invited to Philadelphia as super delegates in a couple of weeks, have been remarkably mute since Comey announced Tuesday that the FBI would not recommend criminal charges against the Democratic nominee-in-waiting – but then excoriated her for poor judgment, making untrue statements about her use of email and potentially allowing hostile foreign governments to see sensitive material.
The party’s 18 members on the committee, therefore, arrive for work Thursday as an important focus group. How many stand by her, or even endeavor to challenge Comey’s ready-made-for-a-Trump-attack-ad conclusions, will be measured very closely against how many make speeches even mildly critical of their candidate’s behavior or competence, unless they stay away from the proceedings altogether.
Most will probably echo the talking points of their ranking panel member, Maryland’s Elijah E. Cummings, who chided GOP Chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah for scrambling the schedule to arrange a so-called emergency hearing.
“Since Republicans disagree with his recommendation,” Cummings said of Comey, “they are doing what they always do — using taxpayer funds to continue ‘investigating’ their baseless claims in an effort to bring down Secretary Clinton’s poll numbers. The only emergency here is that yet another Republican conspiracy theory is slipping away.”
But a handful of panel Democrats may offer a counterintuitive perspective, either because of short-term political interests or as a reflection of past willingness to go against the partisan grain
Tammy Duckworth could conclude her lead in the Illinois Senate race will only grow if she puts a bit of judicious distance between herself and Clinton. Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia is a Clinton loyalist with a reputation for making tartly candid political assessments . Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania and Jim Cooper of Tennessee are right of their caucus’ center and have bucked the party hierarchy more often than most.
The GOP’s 25 committee members have an intraparty challenge of their own. They’re eager to vent their exasperation with Comey’s conclusion that Clinton could not be successfully prosecuted, because there was no evidence she intentionally mishandled classified material. But doing so will quickly lead them toward repudiating a prominent fellow Republican with a sustainable political future.
Comey has been a hero in most GOP congressional circles since his work two decades ago as counsel for a special Senate committee investigating the Clintons’ questionable Whitewater land deals.
He gained bipartisan respect when, as deputy attorney general in 2004, he famously raced to the hospital bedside of Attorney General John Ashcroft to prevent reauthorization of the warrantless wiretapping program of dubious constitutionality. And his decade-long term as FBI director lasts until 2023, when he’ll be 62, still young enough for a continued career in public service or politics.
Those two new dramas will be playing out in public while the lingering spectacle of Trump fighting with his own party establishment reaches its Hill denouement in private .
There’s no body language suggesting any pre-convention abandonment of the candidate by the congressional wing of the GOP. No matter what Trump says to them, most Republican House members and senators seem to have found their tolerable space on the approach-avoidance continuum.
For many, that starts with staying clear of Cleveland in two weeks.
Some are following the “hate the sin but accept the sinner” approach of Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who has felt compelled to repudiate two things Trump has done this week alone: Labeling Saddam Hussein “so good” at quashing terrorism in Iraq and tweeting out an image widely viewed as anti-Semitic.
Many others are adopting the damning-with-the-faintest-praise tactic of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose enthusiasm these days tops out at declaring Trump “getting closer” to being a serious and credible aspirant to the world’s most powerful job.
Only a few have been willing to publicly remove themselves from the Trump orbit – a roster that now includes Bob Corker. The Tennessee senator seemed to have been the only sitting member of Congress left on the vice-presidential short list, but he never got comfortable with the audition and on Wednesday took himself out of consideration .
When the presumptive nominee drives away from Capitol Hill at midday, many of the Republican lawmakers left behind will have just laid eyes on him for the first time. And those willing to talk about their feelings seem ready to evoke the metaphoric title of the biggest non-fiction best-seller of the 1990s:
Trump is from Mars, and Congress is from Venus, and the fundamental atmospherics of those different political planets just are never going to change. He’s going to talk at us, we’re going to talk about how we don’t like being talked to that way, but we’re going to be stuck in the same orbit for another four months.