Winners and losers from the James Comey hearing
FBI Director James Comey and Director of the National Security Agency Mike Rogers testified in front of the House intelligence committee on Monday, a hugely-anticipated event that yielded confirmation of an investigation into contacts between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian officials during the 2016 campaign.
I watched, tweeted and picked some of the best and worst of the hearing. My picks are below.
- Jamey Comey: Comey is a old hand at these sorts of hearings. But he still put on a command performance on Monday. He wanted to make two points: 1) The FBI is investigating connections and possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian intelligence officials and 2) Zero evidence of Trump’s wire-tapping claims has been found by either the FBI or the broader Justice Department. He did both — and those were the two main headlines out of the day. Comey also displayed a remarkable ability to walk the very fine line between what he could say and what he should say. He was polite but firm and totally unwilling to entertain the dozens of hypotheticals thrown at him by members of Congress on both sides.
- Adam Schiff: Schiff, the ranking member on the intelligence committee, was the most effective Democrat in laying out the Russia case and undermining Trump’s wire-tapping claims. It wasn’t perfect — he went on way too long at the opening of the hearing when everyone and their brother wanted to hear from Comey — but Schiff asked the right questions in a straightforward and intelligible way. His profile has soared amid this ongoing Russia investigation and his performance on Monday won’t slow that rise. The question is what Schiff wants to do next; if Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) decides not to run for reelection in 2018, that might be an opportunity for Schiff to move onto an even bigger stage.
- Trey Gowdy: The South Carolina Congressman isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. He mugs for the cameras, dramatically pauses and, broadly speaking, knows he is performing for a national (cable) audience every second. Those quirks notwithstanding, I thought Gowdy did the best job of scoring points on the question of the illegality of the leaks coming out of the intelligence community — better than Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) who chairs the intelligence committee. Gowdy also has a sense of humor — about himself and politics more generally — that I thought he showcased nicely, particularly in the waning moments of the very long hearing.
- Elise Stefanik: The Republican from New York is one of the most junior members of the committee. Which means she didn’t get first, second or even third cut at questioning Comey or Rogers. In fact, she didn’t get to ask her first question until the hearing had been going for more than four hours. Still, Stefanik was insightful and probing — asking good questions that actually elicited responses from Comey and Rogers. Kudos.
- Donald Trump: During a break in the action around 1 pm eastern, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R) acknowledged on CNN that the morning had not gone well at all for the president. Correct. For all of the attempts by Republican members to focus on the potential criminality of the leaking from the intelligence community, the big takeaways — no wiretapping evidence, an ongoing Russia investigation — were bad news for Trump. Perhaps trying to turn things around, Trump himself tweeted this around lunchtime:
FBI Director Comey refuses to deny he briefed President Obama on calls made by Michael Flynn to Russia. pic.twitter.com/cUZ5KgBSYP
— President Trump (@POTUS) March 20, 2017
But, Comey did no such thing. He simply didn’t comment on a question asked of him by Gowdy. And Comey had made clear repeatedly during the day that his refusal to answer certain questions should be in no way taken as a tacit admission of anything. Which, of course, is exactly what Trump did. Coming out of the hearing, the questions about wire-tapping and Russia are going to grow louder. And that’s bad for Trump.
- Mike Conaway: The Texas Republican seemed to think he had spotted a crack in Comey’s answer about the goal of Russian hacking in the election. Comey, according to Conaway, had said the goal of the hacking was to hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the 2016 election. But Comey had said the goal was to elect Trump. Boom! Roasted! Except that, as Comey quickly pointed out, there were only two viable candidates running. Meaning that if Russia wanted one to lose, it, by default, wanted the other one to win. Here’s a look at Conaway following that Comey answer:
- The media: Comey doesn’t seem to think much of us. He repeatedly noted that he sees incorrect reporting about classified information all the time in the media — and chooses not to correct it. Not great. For us.
- Questions that aren’t really questions: This hearing was absolutely lousy with these sorts of questions — from members on both sides of the aisle. One example from an unnamed member (mostly because I can’t remember who it was): “You are aware that Paul Manafort was a member of Donald Trump’s senior campaign staff? And that Manafort has ties to Ukraine? [Read multiple news articles making this point.] Can you confirm Mr. Manafort is a target of the FBI investigation?”
I mean. Come on.