Critic's Notebook: Comey Brings Drama — and a Dash of Humor — to Senate Testimony

James Comey Testifying 2 - Getty - H 2017
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Highlights of James Comey's blockbuster appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee included the FBI director calling President Donald Trump a liar and Sen. John McCain getting seriously confused.

Former FBI Director James Comey's testimony before the Senate intelligence committee on Thursday was shown not only on the usual cable news networks, but on all of the broadcast ones as well. That's understandable, since it offered the opportunity for far more drama than a daytime soap opera. Despite Comey's low-key, unruffled demeanor, the hearing didn't disappoint, delivering juicy revelations that added more fuel to the political fire.

As the hearing proceeded, it became quickly apparent that President Donald Trump was on trial. And despite Comey's frequent praise of the committee's non-partisan nature, it was also obvious that the Democrats were serving as the prosecution and the Republicans as the defense. With the exception of Susan Collins, a moderate Republican (if that's not an oxymoron at this point), all of the senators asked leading questions designed either to exonerate or condemn Trump. It added a sadly familiar political component to the proceedings.

This was Comey's first appearance since his abrupt termination, and he clearly had a lot to get off his chest. He expressed deep resentment over Trump's derogatory statements about both him and the FBI, saying that the president "chose to defame me."

"Those were lies, plain and simple," Comey declared.

The day before the hearing, Comey released his opening statement to the press, and it was a doozy. He described nine — count 'em, nine — private conversations with Trump since the election, compared to only two with Barack Obama in the preceding years. Immediately after the first exchange in which Comey revealed to Trump details about "salacious, unconfirmed" charges, Comey began documenting the meetings for the record. He explained that he felt the need because of "the nature of the person" with whom he was speaking.

"I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting," Comey told the committee, taking the unprecedented step of calling the President of the United States a bald-faced liar. Asked by Virginia Senator Mark Warner if he felt the same need to document his conversations with Obama or George W. Bush, Comey replied in the negative. "I think that is very significant," Warner commented, pausing to let his remark sink in.

Saying his encounters with Trump made him so uncomfortable that he asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to keep the president away from him, Comey sounded like a teenage girl not wanting to be alone with her best friend's creepy uncle. Asked why he felt uneasy when Trump cleared the Oval Office so they could have a private chat, Comey replied, "I'm 56 years old, I've seen a few things." (Yeah, like episodes of To Catch a Predator.) It was deeply unsettling to hear the nation's former top crime-fighter, who looks like he could easily wrestle a giraffe to the ground, admit to quaking in his boots at the thought of being left alone with a 70-year-old man who doesn't exercise.

Comey essentially accused President Trump of obstruction of justice for telling him, "I hope you can let Flynn go." "I took it as a direction," he told the committee. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California asked, "You're big, you're strong … why didn't you say, 'Mr. President, this is wrong'?"

"I was stunned," Comey replied. Several Republican senators followed up on the question, only in a more accusatory manner, like Comey was an assault victim who had been irresponsible for not reporting the crime. Comey admitted that he was "not Captain Courageous," but that wasn't enough for Missouri Senator Roy Blunt, who even castigated him for taking the president's phone calls. Oklahoma Senator James Lankford continued the approach, remarking about Trump's comment, "If the president was trying to get you to drop it, this seems like a pretty light touch." But Comey pushed back, pointing out that if FBI agents had become aware of Trump's request, there was "a real risk of a chilling effect on their work."

Another major revelation came when Comey admitted that, through a friend, he leaked information about his conversations with Trump to the press. (Considering that FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt was revealed to be "Deep Throat" during Watergate, Comey was following a venerable Bureau tradition.) Asked why he had used an intermediary, Comey said, "I was worried it was like feeding seagulls at the beach." You have to hand it to Comey, he knows how to coin a phrase; among his other gems were "There should be no fuzz on this" and "This isn't a hill worth dying on."

Asked about the possibility of President Trump having recorded their meetings, Comey put on his best choirboy face and enthused, "Lordy, I hope there are tapes." He also said that at one point, "It gave me a queasy feeling," which, after his multiple references to being "nauseous" during his previous testimony about the Clinton investigation, suggests that he really needs to see a gastroenterologist.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona seemed to be confused during his questioning of Comey, who was befuddled when McCain asked why he was still investigating Trump and not Hillary Clinton. "I think there's a double standard there, to tell the truth," the senator huffed, ignoring the gavels announcing his time was up.

It turns out that we have Bill Clinton to thank for Donald Trump's presidency, since Comey revealed that it was Bill's tarmac meeting with then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch that led him to publicly disclose his reopening of the investigation into Hillary's emails. (Thanks for that, Bill.) You can bet that there'll be a seriously uncomfortable conversation over dinner at the Clinton house tonight.

In the absence of documentation other than Comey's copious notes, Trump's supporters will no doubt describe this as a "he said, he said" situation. This is true, except the choice is between a former FBI director who has never been accused of being untruthful and a person about whom it can be said — to paraphrase Mary McCarthy's famous comment about Lillian Hellman — "every word he writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"