Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images
Social media lost its collective mind over the former FBI director’s appearance before Congress.
The hearing was overhyped. It was always going to be overhyped. In one corner: former FBI Director James Comey, unlikely hero of the anti-Trump resistance after getting fired abruptly for reasons still opaque to anyone outside the White House. In the other corner: Donald Trump, strangely silent on Twitter while Comey called him a liar in front of the whole world.
But still, what could live up to the pre-hearing buzz from a media establishment desperate for news? CNN could barely contain itself, running a countdown clock leading up to the hearing all week. It was supposed to be "Washington’s Super Bowl." When Comey’s prepared testimony was released on Wednesday, a former White House ethics lawyer said, "This is the equivalent of the Nixon tapes." You wish, buddy.
All over the country, blue-state bars opened early so noble members of the resistance did not have to endure the proceedings sober. A former White House ethics lawyer said Comey’s statement, released the night before, was "the equivalent of the Nixon tapes." There seemed to be hopes in some quarters that Comey, reviled by Democrats less than a year ago for making critical public statements about the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, might somehow annihilate Trump and end the madness of the last four months.
But that was not going to happen. As it got closer to the testimony time, BuzzFeed politics editor Katherine Miller appropriately wondered, "Have… have people watched a congressional hearing before?"
It was never going to live up to the hype.
When Comey arrived in the chamber at 10 AM , photographers surrounded him with their cameras. He kept his face neutral, his gaze blank, the face of a man who is very, very concerned with appearances.
As Comey delivered his opening remarks, which included a portion about how genuinely sad he was to leave his coworkers at the FBI, he remained expressionless. But he livened up when he first asserted the president told "lies, plain and simple," eventually easing into a way of speaking that wasn’t so deadly serious. He even smiled a little. Who among us wouldn’t relish a bit of payback against a bad boss who humiliates you, fires you, and then shit-talks you to the press?
As the senators asked questions—occasionally going over the same ground and often getting "I can’t talk about that publicly" replies from Comey— social media twisted itself into conniptions over anything that was halfway interesting. "Lordy, I hope there are tapes," Comey said, his quaint use "lordy" delighting the Twittersphere. Someone with an IP address in Congress added Donald Trump to the "obstruction of justice" Wikipedia page (an accusation Comey stopped short of making). A thousand takes bloomed.
Throughout the almost three hours of increasingly repetitive questions, liberals oozed over Comey’s eloquent descriptions of what transpired between him and Trump. Before beginning questioning, Republican Senator James Risch even took a moment to compliment Comey’s stellar prose: "I find it clear. I find it concise… this is as good as it gets, and I really appreciate that."
(When things got dull, all subsections of Twitter came together to roast Newsweek writer Kurt Eichenwald for posting a photo with his computer screen in the background that revealed he’d been looking at hentai porn. Eichenwald then explained he was actually trying to prove to his wife that tentacle porn existed.)
The biggest piece of actual news in Comey’s testimony was his readiness to call Trump a liar, something most of Washington already knows but few actually say. No one on the Intelligence Committee, even the Republicans, really protested this characterization.
Democratic Senator Kamala Harris asked tough questions about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s knowledge of the Russia investigation that he could eventually be implicated in, while her California colleague Dianne Feinstein wondered why Comey wouldn’t stand-up to Trump, saying, "You’re big. You’re strong." Texan Republican John Cornyn was more interested in the Clinton email scandal than Trump’s potential wrongdoings. At one point, Comey said he had no regrets about his actions in the 2016 election , perhaps just to reassure everyone of his nonpartisan bona fides.
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Aside from John McCain—who later blamed his incoherence on being kept up late by baseball—none of the senators made notable gaffes. There was some grandstanding, but that’s to be expected at a televised hearing. Mostly, everyone was demonstrating how serious and patriotic they were. There was a lot of praising of Comey’s career as a public servant. "I pray for you and your family because you carry a tremendous amount of stress," Senator John Lankford said before he began his questioning.
Comey uncomfortably shifted in his chair throughout, but this was a friendly hearing, and he obviously said what he came there to say.
At one point, Senator Angus King was asking Comey about the one-on-one dinner he had with Trump, and the former FBI director mentioned he "had to call [his] wife and break a date with her."
"One of the all-time great excuses for breaking a date," King joked.
"Yeah. In retrospect, I love spending time with my wife and I wish I would have been there that night," Comey retorted as the audience broke out in laughter— one of the only times they could be heard.
Questions about the meat of the ongoing investigations into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian hacking of the 2016 election—and any offshoots of that probe—were saved for the closed session that followed the public hearing. Such investigations take a long, long time, and if any criminal charges manifest it will likely take months, if not years.
Ultimately, how you interpret Comey’s testimony is almost entirely contingent on what you wanted out of it—the right looked to absolve Trump of any criminal wrongdoing, while the left wanted the opposite, but also sought to try the president in the court of public opinion. The truth is, this is the beginning of a very long road.
Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.