James Comey put the bureau in bureaucrat at Thursday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearings.
We think of FBI agents as courageous. Comey came across as cowardly, a word he used to describe his dealings with the president. Perhaps it now takes a bureaucrat to attain the highest of heights in the bureau.
Comey faulted former attorney general Loretta Lynch for prevailing on him to euphemistically call his “investigation” into the Hillary Clinton email scandal a “matter,” which paralleled the curious verbiage employed by the Democrat’s presidential campaign. But the self-preservationist dutifully followed the lead of his boss, who, for all we know, followed the lead of her boss.
In one breath, Comey characterized the pursuit of leakers as a “goal I share” to listening senators. In another, he described not only taking notes of his private conversation with the president, but of leaking the notes through a third party (to avoid taking responsibility) to the New York Times.
After Comey admitted that a copy of those notes resides with a private citizen, Oklahoma Senator James Lankford asked the former director to provide the Senate with one. Comey could only respond with “potentially.” He repeatedly couched broad inferences with the phrase “I could be wrong.” In explaining why he caved to what he described as Trump’s push for a loyalty pledge by pledging “honest loyalty,” Comey declared: “I tried to hold the line. I tried to hold the line.”
The fired FBI director portrayed the unusual step of recording the president’s words in a post-meeting document as “important to protect this organization.” He then reassured the senators that he didn’t approach the president in a “J. Edgar Hoover kind of way,” i.e., de facto blackmail, effectively throwing the organization’s reputation under the bus by smearing the man who gave his name to its headquarters who led it for nearly half of its existence.
Even the chyrons couldn’t keep up with the director’s all-over-the-place testimony. One MSNBC graphic read, “Comey: Trump Lied About Reasons for Firing.” The next one explained, “Comey: I Take Trump ‘At His Word’ That I Was Fired ‘Because of the Russia Investigation.’”
Don’t blame MSNBC for the inconsistency. Comey said both things.
In Comey’s defense, the situations presented to him over the past year put him in a difficult spot, one encountered by no previous FBI director. The notion of investigating a major presidential candidate in the midst of a campaign, or investigating prominent administration figures in the opening days of a presidency, guaranteed enemies. Unfortunately for the director, his bureaucratic zeal for not making enemies ensured that he made them.
And his secret-squirrel approach to documenting a private conversation with the president, motivated to protect himself from a potential enemy, left him vulnerable. He noted his belief in the president’s mendacity as the motivation for the notetaking. This perhaps says something about Trump. It says something louder about Comey. He regarded the president of the United States, a man he did not really know, as a liar. Whether Trump then regarded Comey as a foe, we do not know. We know the FBI director immediately viewed his new boss with great prejudice.
The hearings benefited neither Trump nor Comey. Russia, in Comey’s noting that its efforts to interfere with U.S. elections predated 2016, unsurprisingly fared poorly. The FBI director rebutting scoops from CNN, ABC, and the New York Times ensured a bad day for the Fourth Estate in the hall of the Second Estate.
The United States Senate clearly won the day. Martin Heinrich and Dianne Feinstein, on the Democratic side of the aisle, and Roy Blunt and James Lankford, on the Republican side, performed in ways that credited their institution. Oregon’s Ron Wyden, bizarrely fixating on olfactory matters, came across as a politician imitating a South Park imitation of a politician, and California’s Kamala Harris appeared only slightly more senatorial than Kamala the Ugandan Giant.
New Mexico’s Heinrich summed up the commonsense takeaway by observing, “A lot of this comes down to who should we believe.” It’s a he said-he said, and one involving two of the most respected institutions — the presidency and the FBI — in America. That’s high drama.
To his credit, Comey struck viewers as staid, cautious, and respectable. But his words often overruled his bearing. The private Trump he publicly described appeared uncouth, gauche, overbearing. Trump can be all that. But the president so lacking a governor on his speech (or his tweets) that he periodically comes across as a Tourette’s case says, in contrast to other politicians, what’s on his mind rather than what’s on yours. Whereas Comey clearly wins the trust battle on demeanor, Trump just as clearly triumphs on speech.
Guarded speech, of the like favored by the former director, conveys a certain steadiness. Unguarded speech, of the kind the president seems constitutionally predisposed to, exudes, yes, an immature exuberance, but honesty, too.