If the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is the nerd prom, former FBI director James Comey’s Senate testimony on Thursday was nerd Super Bowl.
Washington DC’s bars had morning drink specials, meetings were cancelled until noon, and hundreds lined up for hours outside the Senate chamber where Comey would speak, hoping to snag one of the few public seats. While Republicans and Democrats may be bitterly divided in America, it felt for a moment as if people from both parties united to play hooky in DC, and tune in at 10am.
As the hearing was starting, the line to get in outside the chamber on the second floor of the white marble Hart Building was still at least 100 strong, many of them young interns and Congressional staffers. They huddled around cell phones and open laptops hooked up to the Senate’s free Wi-Fi.
“It’s a historic moment,” said one 19-year-old, who said she worked for a House Republican but didn’t want to give her name. Yes, the nation has been very divided, but the hearing could “bring us together and get everyone on the same page.”
A tall square-shouldered young guy in a slightly shiny blue suit was posing for a photo with a perplexed older man wearing a yarmulke. After handing him a Trump button, the younger man demonstrated a thumbs-up fist bump. “It’s the Trump bump,” he said, grinning.
Standing at the very end of the line was Jonny Simpson, a 28-year-old former University of Maryland football player who was wearing a loose red necktie and an open shirt that showed off his chest tattoo. Simpson, who runs a Facebook live show, said he was there to “soak up the atmosphere of the room.”
The Union Pub, a bar just a few blocks from the Capitol building, had promised a free round whenever the president tweeted during the hearing. It was packed by 10:30am. The standing room only crowd clutched plastic cups of beer while watching the bar’s rows of televisions.
Alex Rojas, 48, wearing a pink button-down shirt, was taking selfies with the crowd behind him. “I’m here for the free drink,” he said, but sadly “someone seems to have taken Trump’s phone away.” Originally from Colombia, Rojas had lived in DC for 20 years and is a keen follower of US politics.
He traveled to Alabama to watch the last presidential debate in order to gauge how Trump supporters were feeling, but wherever he went they had the baseball game on instead, he said. “It’s like the Super Bowl,” he said surveying the Thursday’s crowd. “I love this town.”
Journalists from German radio and Japanese television worked the room. A tall blond in a orange shift dress did a broadcast for Ukrainian television. The crowd shushed each other when thing got too noisy, or the hard-to-hear senator Diane Feinstein spoke, and hooted with laughter as Comey said “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.” (He was speaking of his conversation with president Trump in the Oval Office, which Trump hinted on Twitter he had recorded.)
David Oltorik, a pilot and ex-Pentagon employee, had the day off, so he and his wife Suzanne decided they’d view the hearing with a crowd at Union Pub. Comey is “trying to act in good faith,” he said. The intelligence community is fighting back against Trump, Oltorik said, because “intelligence folks are committed to the industry,” and Trump has pledged to upend it.
A waiter carried a plate of french fries walked by, followed by another with a tray of bloody marys.
The hype surrounding the event itself “is kind of self-feeding,” said Oltorik, cheerfully surveying the increasingly rowdy crowd. “I just put something on my Facebook and my friend commented ‘Doesn’t anyone in that town work?’ “