Day 6

Real-life political theatre: Decoding Comey's testimony

Former FBI Director James Comey delivered some sharp testimony at the Senate intelligence committee on Thursday. New Republic Senior Editor Jeet Heer and Upworthy writer Parker Molloy weigh in on the fallout.
Former FBI Director James Comey testifies before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images) (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Former FBI director James Comey's testimony before the U.S. Senate intelligence committee on Thursday had all the makings of a major event, with viewing parties in pubs, political commentators pontificating on news networks, and those on both the left and right staking out their partisan positions.

Comey spoke for nearly three hours as he was questioned by senators investigating possible interference by Russia in the 2016 presidential election, as well as investigating any possible ties U.S. President Donald Trump's team may have had with the Russians.

While Comey's testimony might have lacked any major fireworks it still offered plenty for pundits and the public alike to chew on, from his insistence that Trump lied about the reasons for his firing, to his admission that he leaked memos about his meetings with Trump to the press via a friend.

So now that Comey's much-anticipated testimony before the committee is done, what exactly did we learn from what he had to say — or didn't say? And what does it all mean for Trump's presidency?

To help us parse this latest twist in the Trump saga, we called on two of our favourite political observers: New Republic senior editor Jeet Heer and Upworthy writer Parker Molloy.

Former FBI Director James Comey is sworn-in before testifing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8 in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Politics as political theatre

"Starting from the bit of prologue in the form of his written remarks, filled with salacious details about inappropriate meetings and requests, right down to the mystery surrounding his repeated statements about not being able to speak on various subjects in open session, it kind of lived up to its billing as this top-notch spy novel that we've come to expect," Molloy says.

In fact, Comey could be a character straight out of central casting, Heer points out.

"James Comey looks like an FBI agent. He could definitely get a job in Hollywood. Tall, ramrod … frank, sincere, maybe a little dry and humourless, but projecting that sort of sincere mid-America honesty."


Political Rorschach test

While much of what Comey had to say seemed potentially damaging to Trump, both Republicans and Democrats alike came away from his testimony insisting their side had been vindicated.

"People see whatever they want. Depending on what you were looking for, you probably found it," Molloy notes, pointing out that Republicans are underscoring Comey's confirmation that Trump himself was not under investigation, while Democrats seized upon Trump's request for Comey to drop the inquiry into whether former national security adviser Michael Flynn lied to FBI investigators.

I honestly think the Republicans are whistling past the graveyard.- Jeet Heer , senior editor at the New Republic

"On the issue of whether Trump is personally under investigation, [Godfather character] Don Corleone might not personally be under investigation, but first you get the guys on the street, then you get the mid-level capos, then you get the Don. So you could honestly say, 'well, Don Corleone isn't personally under investigation."


Criticized by both sides

Though his testimony may have focused on his dealings with Trump, Republicans are not the only ones who have had it out for Comey. He was also strongly criticized by Democrats following his comments on the FBI's investigation into Trump's presidential rival Hillary Clinton and her use of a private email server.

"I think [Comey's] politics are a very specific sort, which is not Democratic or Republican," Heer says. "His real interest is in the FBI as an institution and protecting its sovereignty."


Controlling the narrative

The day before his committee hearing, Comey pre-empted his testimony by releasing a seven-page written statement that outlined many of his dealings with Trump.

"In his writing, the corruption seems so obvious and so clear that it's almost unbelievable — but yet this is reality," Molloy says. "I mean, I wish I could write more like James Comey — it seems like he has a future writing spy novels if he really wants."

"The statement was very well crafted … [but] I wouldn't say the actual spoken testimony was less effective," Heer adds. "To be able to stand behind the statement and be able to fend off those questions was very important."


To tweet, or not to tweet?

Though he had threatened to live-tweet during the testimony, President Trump remained uncharacteristically silent as Comey took the stand. 

"I can't help but feel that Trump was just saving up everything he wanted to tweet, and instead put it out in the statement from his personal lawyer afterwards," Molloy says.

"There's a pattern we see with Trump where he goes too far in his tweets, then his staff takes the phone away from him or convinces him not to tweet for a few days, and then you get the 'return of the repressed,' as Freud would call it," Heer quips. "I think that this is the pattern now — anyone who's dealt with toddlers will be familiar with it."

What next?

Much ink has been spilled this week about how Comey's testimony might affect the Trump presidency in the long run. While several concurrent investigations into allegations of the Trump administration's ties to Russia and other issues still need to run their course, much of what Comey said was important to what will transpire in the weeks and months ahead.

"The phrase 'honest loyalty', I thought, was very rich with meaning," Heer says. "I thought that was very suggestive of the sort of tension between the two men."

Molloy adds: "During the testimony when he was asked whether he thought Trump was saying that he hoped he would let Flynn off the hook, I feel Comey's response will come to be very important … because that kind of underscores the possible case for obstruction of justice, which is going to be the real question moving forward."

To hear Brent Bambury's conversation with Jeet Heer and Parker Molloy, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.