For nearly three hours on Thursday, former FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee about his conversations with Donald Trump and whether or not he believed those conversations were meant to influence the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn or the “cloud” of the Russia inquiry.
Comey offered a blunt assessment of the president’s conduct: He understood from their conversations that Trump wanted him to “drop any investigation connected to Flynn’s account of his conversations with the Russians”; he found these conversations “disturbing” and “concerning”; and he took thorough notes because he believed the president might later lie about the nature of their meetings.
The testimony, on its face, is damning. Comey declined to answer questions in the public session about whether or not he believed Trump’s actions amounted to obstruction of justice or if he believed there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, but he did characterize the president as a dishonest man who tried to extract a loyalty pledge from the head of the FBI.
And yet, no consensus emerged from the committee on whether or these were bad things—or if Comey even had a valid interpretation of the events as they transpired, or if the hearing should have for some reason focused more on Hillary Clinton’s emails, or whatever strange thing John McCain was trying to say toward the end there. It was a craven and predictable exercise in partisan narrative-spinning, because of course it was.
In a representative example of the line of questioning, Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican, wondered aloud if the main takeaway from Comey’s phone calls with Trump was, perhaps, that the president was actually the person most interested in the FBI conducting a Russia inquiry (emphasis mine):
On a number of occasions here, you bring up — let’s talk about the general Russia investigation, OK? Page six of your testimony you say, the first thing you say is, he asked what we could do to, quote, unquote, ‘lift the cloud,’ the general Russia investigation, you responded, ‘We are investigating the matter as quickly as we could and there would be great benefit if we didn’t find anything for having done the work well.’ [Trump] agreed. He emphasized the problems it was causing him. He agreed it’d be great to have an investigation, all the facts came out and we found nothing. He agreed that would be ideal, but this ‘cloud’ is still messing up my ability to do the rest of my agenda. Is that an accurate assessment?
The hearing was broadcast live and in full across multiple news networks, screened in bars in Brooklyn, DC, and beyond, and breathlessly reported by the political press as some kind of Moment That Changes Everything.
Instead, the hearing changed virtually nothing. For those watching at home, and for the senators in the chamber asking the questions, what you thought after the Comey testimony depended almost entirely on what you thought going in.
Democrats have been chasing the same pipe dream since before Trump took office, desperately hoping for a scandal big enough to eat him alive and force his own party to turn their backs on him. But the Republicans, who are singularly focused on tax cuts and repealing the health care law and keeping their base happy, don’t give a shit. That means Democrats better come up with a progressive plan to improve people’s lives before the midterm elections, because these hearings—or Trump’s incompetence and rank dishonesty, or the craven way his party has closed ranks, or repeatedly emphasizing how This Is Not Normal—won’t win elections for them.