James Comey, the former head of the FBI, testified on Capitol Hill today on Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. The hearing provided more detail on what he said were uncomfortable and at times intimidating interactions with US president Donald Trump, as well as the circumstances that led to Comey’s abrupt firing on May 9.
Key points in Comey’s testimony included:
- He kept detailed notes on his meetings with Trump because he was afraid the president would lie about their interactions.
- He believed his oversight of the Russia investigation led to his unexpected firing.
- Trump expressed his “hope” that Comey would end the FBI’s investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
- Comey has no doubt that Russia interfered in the US election and that it will try to do so again in the future.
The testimony divided America in predictable ways. Judging by Google search trends, people in states that voted Democrat in 2016 were a lot more likely than people in Republican-leaning states to search for Comey’s name, suggesting they were a lot more interested in the hearing.
And while progressives reacted on Twitter to Comey’s revelations with outrage, conservatives (including the president’s eldest son, who essentially live-tweeted the hearing while his father stayed uncharacteristically quiet) are spinning an alternative version of the exact same event.
These are the key talking points that are emerging.
During the hearing, several senators asked Comey about why he didn’t respond more forcefully when the president appeared to try to influence the FBI probes.
“You’re big. You’re strong. I know the Oval Office, and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn’t you stop and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you’?” asked Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein.
“Maybe if I were stronger, I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took in,” Comey replied.
Responding to a line of questioning by Republican senator Tom Cotton, Comey said a February 14 (paywall) story in the New York Times, which said Trump’s campaign had repeated contacts with Russian officials, was “almost entirely wrong.” He didn’t go into specifics.
Conservatives used that admission to discredit the New York Times as a whole.
One of the few pieces of real news to come out of the hearing was that Comey had leaked his own memos of his conversations with Trump to the press, via a friend. In a statement after the hearing, Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, said, “Comey admitted that he unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the president.” (Comey said that his memos contained no classified material.)
On May 31, former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said the e-mail scandal that she believes cost her the 2016 election was the “biggest nothing burger ever.”
Since then, conservatives have seized on that terminology to describe the Russia probe, often employing the 🍔 emoji for added emphasis.
As Matthew Boyle wrote for Breitbart: “Washington, D.C., elites are gathered at their favorite watering holes throughout the city to watch the giant nothing-burger testimony.”
Benghazi didn’t make the cut, but several Republican senators brought up last year’s investigation into Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server, among them John McCain, whose meandering questioning closed the hearing.
During the hearing, Comey confirmed a report, first published in April (paywall) in the New York Times, that Loretta Lynch, Barack Obama’s attorney general, had asked him not to call the inquiry into the Clinton e-mails an “investigation” but a “matter” in public. He said the request “gave him a queasy feeling,” but went along with it, saying he believed “this isn’t a hill worth dying on.”
Conservatives are focusing on the Lynch revelation as the real example of obstruction of justice revealed in Comey’s testimony.