Any day the former head of the FBI testifies that the president of the United States has repeatedly lied cannot be considered a particularly good day for the commander-in-chief.
But in his highly anticipated testimony, James Comey didn’t drop any bombshells, any new devastating information that builds a vastly stronger case for those who talk impeachment or accuse the president of obstructing justice.
“Is this a great day for Donald Trump? Absolutely not,” said Gary Nordlinger, of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. “But I think impeachment [talk] is absolutely premature,” he said.
Comey testified before the Senate intelligence committee on Thursday, just one of a number of committees and agencies, and a special counsel, that are investigating whether Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election — or what’s more politically explosive, whether members of the Trump campaign team co-ordinated efforts with officials from Moscow.
Later in the day, Comey spoke again with that same Senate intelligence committee behind closed doors, but it’s unknown what was discussed and what his answers may have been to some pointed questions from senators about the Russian allegations.
While impeachment proceedings against Trump may not be any closer, Comey’s testimony added to and reinforced some troubling and extraordinary accusations against the sitting president.
Comey boldly accused the president of lying. He said Trump had sought a loyalty pledge from him and wanted him to drop a Russia-related probe into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
The White House explanation for his firing were “lies, plain and simple,” he said.
‘That’s just dramatic’
“I think it just drove some points,” said Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor. “It’s very sobering when a former FBI director is saying these kinds of things. That’s just dramatic.”
Comey declared that the Trump administration “defamed him and more importantly the FBI” by claiming the bureau was in disorder under his leadership.
He said he took notes after a private meeting with the president because there might come a day when he would need a record, as Trump “might lie about the nature of our conversation.”
“This hurts Trump from a PR perspective,” said Republican strategist Evan Siegfried. “The former head of the FBI went before the American people and repeatedly called him a liar.”
Many of the more damaging accusations against Trump have previously been revealed in news reports. And the former director had already stolen some of his own thunder by releasing his opening statement to the committee, which was made public on its website Wednesday. But that didn’t make the testimony any less riveting.
Comey spoke about a Feb. 16 meeting in the Oval Office, in which Trump ordered Attorney General Jeff Sessions and senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner to leave the room before he chatted with Comey.
Comey said he knew “something big is about to happen” and that he needed to remember every word that was spoken. Trump proceeded to say to him, Comey alleged, that he hoped Comey would “let it go,” regarding an investigation of former national security adviser Flynn and his ties to Russia.
Did Comey believe the president was trying to obstruct justice with that comment? He said it wasn’t for him to say.
‘As a direction’
Comey said he didn’t believe he was being ordered to drop the probe, but he did take Trump’s comments “as a direction” that was meant to be obeyed.
“It kind of rings in my ears as, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?'” Comey said, an allusion to a suggestion made by King Henry II that led to the killing of Thomas Becket.
It built on a narrative that is damaging to the president, said Chris Edelson, assistant professor at American University’s department of government. Trump wanted Comey’s loyalty, and he wanted Comey to take action regarding part of the investigation into his former security adviser.
“When he didn’t get that, he fired Comey. If that’s right, those are pretty serious issues legally and or politically,” he said.
Legal experts have mixed thoughts on whether Trump was trying to obstruct justice in his conversation with Comey.
Philip Allen Lacovara, a former deputy solicitor general in the U.S. Justice Department, told As It Happens host Carol Off that he believed Comey’s testimony was enough to establish elements of a crime.
But Gerhardt said he didn’t think Comey’s testimony changed the needle one way or the other as to whether obstruction had occurred. (Although he said it was “disturbing” the president had ordered Sessions and Kushner out of the room before talking to Comey.)
Mark Rozell, dean of George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, said he didn’t hear anything that would point to “smoking gun evidence.”
Comey also speculated on why he thought he was fired. He said he wasn’t sure, but believed, as Trump had said in an NBC News interview, that it had to do with the Russia investigation. Comey surmised that his investigation was creating pressure on Trump, pressure the president wanted relieved.
Yet Gerhardt questioned the significance of Comey’s opinion about his dismissal. “Comey is a player in the situation, so he doesn’t have objectivity. One witness talking about another witness.”
Thursday’s hearing was certainly one of the most anticipated in recent U.S. political history. Hopeful observers, many of them government interns, had begun arriving at the Senate Hart Office building at 4 a.m. to witness what they considered to be a historic moment.
Inside, hundreds stood in a line that stretched to an adjoining office building. But most of those were turned away, as the room only accommodated less than 90 seats for spectators. The rest were packed with members of the press, political VIPs, members of the Senate intelligence committee, and Comey himself, who spent nearly three hours fielding questions from the committee.
“I thought it was a fascinating morning, a very remarkable morning,” Nordlinger said. “I didn’t think any new information came out. But what you had was the human emotion of hearing Comey’s testimony as opposed to simply reading his words.”
Shortly after the Comey hearing, Trump’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz made a statement denying that Trump had ever asked the FBI director to drop any investigation into anyone, and insisting the president never demanded a loyalty pledge.
Rozell said we have a classic case of two people in a room together with no independent voice to corroborate either side.
“Getting to the truth isn’t going to be very easy. Still don’t have a smoking gun, we have an allegation and we have a ‘he said he said’ situation,” Rozell said.