Anyone who expected some huge, dramatic, presidency-shattering revelation from former FBI Director James Comey's public appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday was bound to be disappointed. Even those hardy college students who gathered in bars to watch the testimony (and perhaps down a beer every time President Donald Trump tweeted a response) were surely left sober (unless Donald Trump Jr. tweets count, in which case they are probably still a bit groggy).
What viewers saw instead was a career law enforcement officer give what seemed a pretty candid, calm and no-nonsense account of his interactions with President Trump regarding the FBI's investigation into Russian meddling in the last election and the possible involvement of Trump associates as well as his own firing by Mr. Trump. His testimony neither exonerated nor indicted any of the principals beyond what had been publicly stated before. Indeed, Mr. Comey was cautious not to reveal much about what investigators are uncovering and instead reviewed what he had already offered in written testimony — much of it about whether the president sought to affect the investigation and perhaps even obstruct justice, a potentially impeachable offense.
So let's cut to the chase: Did President Trump obstruct justice? Mr. Comey repeatedly sidestepped that question saying it was not for him but for Robert Mueller, the former FBI director now serving as special counsel for the Russia investigation, to decide. Yet along the way, Americans heard a great deal more about how Mr. Comey felt he could not trust Mr. Trump and how the president clearly sought to influence the investigation, including, most famously, asking about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn: "I hope you can see your way to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go," Mr. Comey had previously recalled Mr. Trump telling him.
Was that especially egregious (and cringeworthy) event an effort to obstruct justice? Not long after Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho questioned whether the word, "hope" made the president's comments seem more like speculation than an outright command, the conversation turned to British history and something Henry II once allegedly said about Archbishop of Canterbuy Thomas Beckett more than nine centuries ago, "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" Was he speculating? A handful of knights apparently didn't think so. The archbishop was dead within weeks.
And there's more, of course. Mr. Trump wanted Mr. Comey to pledge loyalty and he offered honesty. The president repeatedly asked if he wanted to stay on as FBI director in an apparent effort to remind Mr. Comey who was ultimately in charge. The president invited Mr. Comey to a private dinner. On another occasion, he asked to speak to Mr. Comey after dismissing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Mr. Comey's boss, from the room. All of which convinced Mr. Comey to keep copious notes, to not discuss these encounters with many others (for fear of chilling the investigation) and to generally distrust Mr. Trump.
How did Republicans on the committee take these comments, this indictment of the president's credibility and trustworthiness? Most did not raise any objection. Certainly not Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina or most of his fellow Republicans. Well, of course, an FBI director would have to write down everything President Trump said in private talks for fear of him lying about these encounters later, they seemed to admit. Perhaps they all do the same. How scandalous that in five short months, it's now become an accepted fact (perhaps even on a bipartisan basis) that there's an unabashed serial prevaricator occupying the Oval Office. Would Mr. Comey mind releasing his memos or, if President Trump taped conversations with him, would he mind releasing the tapes? Mr. Comey said he would be delighted to see both in the public record.
As humiliating as the hearing might have been for Mr. Trump, Americans could at least take comfort in how committee members conducted themselves. The vast majority of questions were fair and probing, the speechmaking kept to a minimum. Unlike their House counterparts, this group appeared to be sincerely interested in hearing what Mr. Comey had to say, and while there were moments of irrelevancy (including the requisite regurgitation of the Hillary Clinton email scandal), viewers could be confident that this was a serious undertaking by serious individuals. The country could use that right about now.
One more important point that Mr. Comey raised. The Russia investigation isn't "fake news," it's about as serious a matter as he has encountered. Not just because a foreign adversary has tried to undermine our democracy but because the 2016 election is unlikely to be the last time the Russians attempt such a thing. Was there any doubt of Russian hacking and release of private emails? No. Was there any doubt top Russian officials knew about it? No. And if U.S. citizens were involved in this effort? "That is a very big deal," Mr. Comey said.