The noun “lie” has been part of the English language for more than a thousand years, since before the Norman Conquest. But never before Thursday morning had it been repeatedly brandished by a defrocked FBI director testifying under oath to describe the president of the United States.
In his opening statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee, James Comey bluntly referred to presidential attacks on his competence as “lies, plain and simple.”
Then, a few minutes later, Comey explained that he kept written records of his conversations with Donald Trump because “I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting.”
‘Not a liar’
Responding to the Comey testimony, White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared, “I can definitely say that the president is not a liar.”
The line was eerily reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook.” It also raised the metaphysical question of whether a press secretary, schooled in the arts of spin, is the best character witness for presidential truthfulness.
Decades from now, would-be witnesses will still be studying Comey’s testimony and his white-shirted, ramrod straight demeanor as a model of how to radiate credibility on Capitol Hill.
Comey was nonpartisan (former Obama Attorney General Loretta Lynch came under fire as well). He could be rueful as he admitted several times that he should have been more forceful in standing up to Trump’s pointed suggestion that he drop the Michael Flynn investigation. As Comey told Diane Feinstein, “Maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance. … Maybe if I did it again, I would do it better.”
The ousted FBI director gave a patriotic speech, worthy of Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” as he decried Russian disruption of the 2016 campaign: “We have this big messy wonderful country where … nobody tells us what to think, what to fight about, what to vote for except other Americans.”
With a flair for language, Comey added a new phrase to political lexicon as he explained why he used a friend as an intermediary to leak to The New York Times: “It would be like feeding seagulls at the beach if it was I who gave it to the media.”
No hits, no runs
Beginning with Marco Rubio, who has conveniently forgotten the “Little Marco” slights of the 2016 primary campaign, Republicans repeatedly pressed Comey on his reluctance “to make a public statement that [Trump] was not under investigation.” The tenor of the questions implied that Comey had exaggerated his concerns about Trump’s interference with the Russia inquiry and that the ousted FBI director was motivated by personal pique in his fury against Trump.
But it is hard to see how these partisan talking points convinced anyone who was not a Trump loyalist to begin with. Comey was such an unflappable witness that he could even sound convincing when he was explaining his journalistic jujitsu in using a cutout to contact The New York Times.
Anti-Trump militants dreaming of impeachment also had to be disappointed with the Comey testimony. While Trump’s expressed hope that the FBI would go easy on “good guy” Flynn was troubling and the firing of Comey was a blunderbuss assertion of presidential power, it is hard to see how these offenses alone add up to a Watergate-style “smoking gun.”
Of course, there is much that we still do not know. Again and again, Comey responded to questions on the Russia investigation by saying, “I can’t answer that in an open setting.”
Many in Washington are squinting to see a pattern in the questions that Comey refused to publicly answer. But a safer interpretation would be to recall that any major investigation takes years to develop — whether it eventually leads to impeachable offenses during Watergate or a dry hole like the overhyped Clinton scandal called Whitewater.
In normal times, the major headline to emerge from Comey’s testimony would be his admission that Bill Clinton, in effect, cost his wife Hillary the White House.
Comey confirmed that the only reason that he held his initial July 2016 press conference on Hillary Clinton’s email server was because the former president had clambered onto the attorney general’s plane in Phoenix. That tarmac meeting, Comey said, “was the thing that capped it for me, that I had to do something separately to protect the credibility of the investigation.”
If Comey had not gone public in July, he would not have felt compelled to announce in late October that he had reopened the email investigation, a revelation that probably lost the election for Hillary Clinton. And it all comes back to Bill Clinton accidentally — or perhaps subconsciously — sabotaging his wife’s quest for the presidency.
The message embedded in the 2016 campaign was woe to those who challenge James Comey’s integrity. And, wherever things go from here, it was a lesson about government that Donald Trump, in characteristic fashion, was too inattentive to learn.