Just to be clear, this hasn't happened before: The former FBI director publicly called the president a liar, and he returned the favor.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 9, 2017
Ousted FBI director James Comey's blockbuster testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee didn't settle whether Trump associates colluded with Moscow's meddling in last year's presidential campaign, or resolve whether President Trump himself is guilty of obstruction of justice.
But in two days of headlines — making allegations that the president's private lawyer then flatly denied — Comey painted a devastating portrait of a president whom he says lied in public and bulldozed in private through the governmental norms designed to protect the rule of law.
His accounts, which Comey says are backed up by contemporaneous memos, are guaranteed to fuel the multiple investigations that continue to cast a cloud over the White House, with consequences ahead that are impossible to predict. And whatever happens next, the back-and-forth accusations of suspicion, dishonesty and wrongdoing between the president of the United States and the man who had served as one of his most senior law-enforcement officials riveted the political world.
"I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting, so I thought it was really important to document," Comey said when asked why he wrote accounts of his encounters with Trump as soon as they were over, something he hadn't done after meetings with George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Indeed, after Trump fired him last month, Comey said, the president offered shifting explanations that "were lies, plain and simple."
Just a mile and a half away from the Senate hearing room during nearly three hours of testimony, Trump restrained from tweeting from the White House while Comey was speaking and declined to respond to reporters' shouted questions later in the afternoon.
But the president's personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz, read a statement to reporters gathered at the National Press Club accusing Comey of making "unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the President" and suggesting that might be fodder for an investigation itself.
That was a reference to Comey's jaw-dropping disclosure that he had allowed a friend to read portions of one of those contemporaneous memos to a reporter for the The New York Times in hopes that the story would spark appointment of a special counsel. Indeed, a day after it was published — alleging Trump told Comey he hoped he would "let go" of the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn — the Justice Department named former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel.
In response to two of Comey's most serious allegations, Kasowitz said Trump had never told the FBI director that he expected "loyalty" from him and never suggested he curb the Flynn investigation. Kasowitz and other Trump defenders also noted that Comey confirmed he had told Trump he wasn't personally under investigation for collusion with Russia, and that Comey testified he didn't believe the president tried to interfere into that broader FBI inquiry.
Comey didn't emerge unscathed from his testimony. He said he decided to arrange the leak of the Flynn story after Trump had tweeted that "James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversation before he starts leaking to the press!" (This anecdote might provide some ammunition for Trump allies who have urged the president to curtail his Twitter activity.) That sort of one-step-removed manipulation of the news isn't unusual in Washington, but it is rare to have a senior official acknowledge that he was behind it, with such specific instigation and goal.
He also said he may have been "cowardly" in not more directly confronting Trump about conduct Comey saw as inappropriate, a point pressed by some Republican senators.
Comey came across as measured, serious, lawyerly. He showed an aw-shucks demeanor when he demurred he was no "Captain Courageous" and expressed the hope that the White House would release tapes of his conversations with the president, if they exist. "Lordy, I hope there are tapes," he said. He said he leaked the story because giving it directly to reporters would be "like feeding seagulls at the beach," swelling the ranks of those staking out his driveway and making them harder to get to disperse.
"There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever," he said at another point. "The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts and it was an active-measures campaign driven from the top of that government ...
"That's about as unfake as you can possibly get."
The hearing was political theater laced with legal risk and electoral repercussions. Comey's testimony came as some Republicans warn of major setbacks in next year's congressional midterm elections if the embattled Trump White House can't find its footing, and the troubling Russian investigations can't be resolved.
It was one of those Washington events with multiple listeners in mind, from the senators on the Intelligence Committee to the nationwide TV audience. And, of course, an audience of one: special counsel Mueller.