It depends on what your definition of hope is.
Splitting that hair and also insisting that everyone from New York and new to Washington would behave as President Donald Trump has are the two slim reeds Republicans desperately clung to as Jimmy Stewart, in the body of James Comey, came to the Senate to breathe life into his testimony released a day earlier. His contemporaneous notes provide a script so specific it’s hard to see how Trump — with his platitudes, his excessive use of caps, exclamation points, and adverbs — can ever refute him.
From the moment he said a belated goodbye to the FBI at the end of his opening remarks — who knew Comey had feelings? — the room belonged to him. No Senator got to grandstand, not for lack of trying in their seven minutes, and neither did the former director, despite Trump’s prior insult that he was a showboater and a “nut job.” With bags the size of Louis Vuitton trunks under his eyes, Comey, sitting as still as a statue except when succumbing to thumb hockey, answered questions as they came, as if each were entirely original and deserved a fresh take. He didn’t digress, as if he had no ax to grind except that of proving his own integrity. He rarely smiled but looked happy. Somewhere inside there must be the feeling most of us harbor of having the opportunity to describe, before the entire world, the boss who just did you in.
When Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked why Comey didn’t tell the president he was doing the wrong thing by asking for his loyalty, Comey said he might have if he were “stronger” but he was too “stunned by the conversation” to do so. He wouldn’t say if what Trump said was obstruction, but he said how concerning it was. He didn’t know of his own knowledge why the president fired him, but he knew from the president’s own words that it was because of the Russia investigation. He knew Trump would lie about what happened and so kept a tick tock of every meeting complete with stage directions (the staff exited the door next to the grandfather clock, he opened his laptop the minute he climbed into his car, the awkward silences). Given the lengths Trump went to so that every encounter would be completely private, with Navy stewards leaving the room after serving dinner and staff reluctantly leaving them alone in the Oval Office after a large meeting, Comey wrote his memos but also hoped Trump’s tweet about having recordings is true. The takeaway line of the day is Comey’s prayer, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
Republicans on the committee had a heck of a time finding a line of questioning to rattle or shake Comey’s rendering of events. From outside the hearing room, talk about how Trump is“new” to Washington, and “all New Yorkers talk this way” (like mobsters?) was being road-tested by Speaker Paul Ryan, who may never grow a spine, and Gov. Chris Christie, who may as well have signed the loyalty pledge Comey refused in the hopes of finally scoring a job when there’s no one else left to turn the lights off in the White House. Inside, GOP Senators engaged in a preposterous parsing of words, one senator asserting that because Trump preceded his request that Comey could see his way clear to let Flynn go with the phrase “I hope,” that therefore there was nothing to see here. California Sen. Kamala Harris put that to rest with the analogy of a stick-up: “When a robber holds a gun to your head and says, ‘I hope you’ll give me your wallet,’ ‘hope’ is not the operative word.”
Harris, the former California attorney general and first term senator, was the breakout star of Wednesday’s hearing with the intelligence chiefs that set the stage for Comey today. When she asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about whether he would give full independence to special counsel Robert Mueller, he kept dodging. Harris asked if could answer “yes” or “no.” But alas she’s not a man and doesn’t get to be so pointed. Chairman Richard Burr cut her off, scolding her to show the witness “courtesy.” Like Elizabeth Warren before her, Harris persisted.
While the Donald was otherwise occupied, giving a speech at an evangelical forum in Washington, his namesake, who’s supposed to be running with his brother and sister the businesses walled off from their father, had time to chime in. Taking the hope defense out for a whirl, Donald Jr., the son who hunts baby elephants for fun, tweeted, “Flynn stuff is BS in context 2 guys talking about a guy they both know well.” That was after Eric, the son who charges charity golf tournaments for using Dad’s private club, declared that his father’s critics “are not even people” ahead of Comey’s return.
Trump’s legal defense was little better. In the absence of soldiers to fill his war room, Trump has litigator Marc Kasowitz, who comes across as another person Trump forgot to drain from the swamp, an expert in racketeering and breach-of-contract law. He showed up to read a brief statement (the written version of which was full of typos, starting with “Predisent”) asserting that Trump did not ask for a loyalty oath, that he’s vindicated because not under investigation, and that we should all be focusing on that admitted leaker, Comey, while the president goes about his busy schedule. And then fled to an elevator without taking questions, standing there with the press just outside, forgetting to hit a button to close the door.
Back to the big hearing, with the question of what Attorney General Jeff Sessions knew and when he knew it. How is his recusal from all things Russia really working if he was nonetheless in the loop on the related decision to can the FBI director? Trump himself admitted that he fired Comey because of the Russia probe. A showstopper was Comey giving Sessions’ reaction to being implored to never, ever let him be alone with Trump again. Comey couldn’t remember any words. He could only remember his boss’ eye roll with a slight tilt of the head. Lordy.
The next public episode comes Tuesday, when Sessions will be asked to confirm or deny his eye roll before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Until then we can all sleep at night knowing Trump is busy doing the nation’s business — infrastructure week! — and hasn’t yet called Christopher Wray, his choice to be the new FBI director, for a dinner date. As far as we know.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for the Daily Beast. She was formerly the first woman columnist at Time magazine, a columnist at Bloomberg View, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and managing editor at the New Republic. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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