James Comey brought the biggest circus Washington has seen in years to the Capitol on Thursday, confirming word-for-word the reports that President Donald Trump urged him to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn and swear loyalty to the president. Comey even said he kept memos because he feared the president would lie about their conversations.
Republicans’ reaction? Essentially, a collective yawn.
“It’s sort of like the build-up to a big Super Bowl game and everybody gets disappointed. You saw the countdown on all the TVs,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who sat through most of the hearing in person even though he is not a member of the Intelligence Committee. “They were expecting a bombshell, what they got was a confirmation of what we knew already. There was very little new information.”
But do revelations from the former FBI director himself that Trump gave him “direction” to shut down an investigation into the former national security adviser or that Comey believes he was fired to derail the broader probe into Trump’s associates’ ties with Russia offer new reason for alarm?
“No,” Tillis said. “It’s like I keep on saying. Y’all think I’m a broken record. Let’s solve health care, let’s solve taxes, let’s move on.”
Though Washington was consumed by Comey’s testimony and the fallout from an ever-deepening crisis for the White House, Thursday was just the latest display of congressional Republicans’ tendency to play down Trump’s latest scandal and desperately try to pivot back to their agenda. If Republicans were concerned, they were going to great lengths to hide it.
It was business as usual in the House, which passed a bill to dismantle the Dodd-Frank Act’s financial regulations. And Senate Republicans continued their quest to find enough votes to repeal Obamacare.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) mused that Trump is merely “new” at politics to defend his behavior, and even Trump’s harshest critics actually seemed buoyed by Comey’s reassurances that Trump has never personally been under investigation or accused by Comey of a crime.
“Comey should be upset by the way he was fired. It was pretty tacky,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. “Take this for what it’s all worth: A good man, Comey, who’s upset and in many ways, got a reason to be upset. But I don’t believe the president committed a crime. It’s clear to me he’s not under investigation for collusion yet.”
Though Comey seemed to leave open the question of whether the president committed obstruction of justice, Graham argued that if special counsel Robert Mueller was actively pursuing such charges, he would not have let Comey testify publicly.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who questioned Comey on Thursday as a member of the Intelligence Committee, stressed that it was not a “good idea” for Trump to ask Comey to “let this go" when it came to Flynn. But when it comes to a potential obstruction of justice case, Rubio also noted Trump’s lack of familiarity with protocol on investigatory issues — although he deferred to Mueller for a final ruling.
“The fundamental question is, is that the act of someone who is just really angry and upset and because he’s not a politician, is kind of unconventional, doesn’t realize — or no one’s told him that he can’t do that or was that an effort to in fact impede an investigation?” Rubio said. “That’s the determination Director Mueller will have to make.”
Meanwhile, Republicans insisted there was plenty of ammunition that undermined Democrats’ arguments and political standing. Much of the questioning from GOP members of the Intelligence Committee focused on two major themes: Securing confirmation from Comey that Trump himself is not under investigation and pressing the former FBI chief on why he didn’t raise concerns publicly earlier about Trump’s private comments, which could be interpreted as interference.
“I would expect the head of the FBI to report a crime,” Graham told reporters.
And the GOP did land some blows courtesy of Comey’s testimony. The former director recounted that former Attorney General Loretta Lynch had directed him to call the probe into Hillary Clinton’s private email use a “matter” rather than an “investigation,” which “confused" and "concerned" Comey. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) also grilled Comey over whether Trump’s “hope” that he’d drop the Flynn probe really amounted to an order from the president.
Though Comey essentially said he’d taken it as a directive from the president, some Republicans said Trump was vindicated.
“It looks to me that the president expressed a wish, or a hope,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who questioned Comey and was once under consideration as the next FBI director. “He made clear what his words were and when you say you hope you can consider letting this go, that’s not an order.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee is still pushing to secure the former FBI director’s testimony, and its chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), hasn’t ruled out subpoenaing Comey. Still, Thursday may be Comey’s sole public appearance before Congress. And most GOP lawmakers pleaded ignorance to the spectacle that was occurring on the second floor of the Hart Building in a cavernous auditorium. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) insisted: “I swear, I wasn’t able to watch any of it.”
And some GOP lawmakers didn’t even need to watch on Thursday to know that the Comey hearing had added little new fuel to the fire. Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a close Trump ally, said Comey “lost a lot of credibility” in his written testimony but that he was unable to watch live on Thursday.
“I never did think it was going to amount to much, because first of all there’s nothing there,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), another Trump defender. “But people around here just love to make something out of nothing and that’s basically what you have there. Tell me otherwise.”
Hatch added: “Of course, I haven’t been in the hearing.”
It was all a little much for Democrats, who hit the political fire alarm in the aftermath. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called it “troubling,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said it was “frightening” and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) called it “disturbing.”
“It increasingly looks like obstruction of justice and that has serious constitutional implications for the president,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “There’s increasing evidence that there were potential crimes committed to this administration.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has been working with Graham to investigate the FBI’s role in the Russia probe, argued that Trump’s comments alone about Flynn would merit a closer look in terms of obstruction of justice charges: “We may not be there yet, but it’s sure as hell viable.”
The one admission some Republicans made after the Comey testimony? That still more needs to be uncovered in the broader Russia probe.
“There’s lots to be investigated. That’s why we need a select committee, OK?” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “Every few days, there’s going to be another shoe that drops.”