Great American political dramas always have characters who rivet our attention.
We may cheer them or jeer them, but they are often the flashpoints, the ones that trigger the political combustion. Think John Dean in Watergate, who helped topple President Richard Nixon, or Monica Lewinsky in the Whitewater scandal, whose role was crucial in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton
This year’s star player is James Comey, the former FBI director fired by President Donald Trump ostensibly for pursuing the investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russia to try and influence the 2016 election.
He has a reputation as a straight shooter who wears his sense of personal integrity as a badge of honor, perhaps a little too outwardly, his critics say. His prepared testimony, released 24 hours earlier, was praised by many as tour de force, a dramatic account of four months of dealing with Trump, replete with detail and damning conversation.
His actual appearance Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee revealed a cagey, politically adept Washington insider who knows the merits of the long game.
Indeed, Comey early on, with what he likely knew about Trump and the inside story of the election, might have seen this day, seated before a star chamber of lawmakers, in his future.
It’s almost as if he knew this day was going to come. It just came a lot sooner.
Republican pollster Neil Newhouse
If Trump was playing checkers with his FBI director before ultimately firing him, whispering praise about keeping him on, clearing the Oval Office of top officials for a private one-on-one, demanding political loyalty over dinner, tweeting a threat about alleged tapes of their conversation, then Comey was playing chess.
Comey’s moves started back in January, if not before, during a meeting to apprise the then-president-elect of damaging allegations contained in a dossier about Russia’s role in the election prepared by a former British spy.
That’s when, he said in response to a question from Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the panel’s vice chairman, he felt compelled to immediately record an account of the meeting, as soon as he exited Trump Tower for his waiting car. Such recording was something he had not done while serving under two other presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“It’s almost as if he knew this day was going to come,” Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said of Comey after the hearing. “It just came a lot sooner.”
Comey explained it this way to the committee: “I think the circumstances, the subject matter, and the person I was interacting with. I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it important to document. That combination of things I had never experienced before, but had led me to believe I got to write it down and write it down in a very detailed way.”
Think about that for a moment. This is a longtime public servant who, before a panel of senators and a television audience of millions, called the president of the United States a liar; several times in fact.
In just about any other recent political time, or under any other administration, that would be a stunning moment. The political class would chatter. Historians would reflect. In the Trump era, it seems like just another day.
How often does Washington hear that kind of candor? That takes a level of self-assurance and cheek rarely seen publicly in the corridors of the capital.
Indeed, Comey saw the political terrain and moved strategically. He wrote memos of other subsequent encounters with Trump. Whether he foresaw his own ouster coming, he predicted the need for a special counsel to take over the investigation.
He told Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that after Trump tweeted the threat about revealing alleged tapes of their dinner conversation, he felt he needed to get his side out.
“I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter,” Comey said. “Didn't do it myself for a variety of reasons. I asked him to because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. I asked a close friend to do it.
At a time when it can be hard, if not disorienting, to distinguish real-life political drama from the latest offerings on HBO or Netflix, Comey blurs the lines. He looks like he walked out of central casting. Tall, with a bearing that exudes both a correctness and meticulous adherence to detail, he also displays an unvarnished sense of patriotism.
When Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., asked him if Trump showed any “curiosity” about Russian interference, which the intelligence community has said, in no uncertain terms, occurred, Comey replied, “The reason this is such a big deal, we have this big messy wonderful country where we fight with each other all the time. But nobody tells us what to think, what to fight about, what to vote for except other Americans.”
Comey donned the cloak of humility when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked why at some point he didn’t just tell the president to back off because the FBI director is an independent actor on the Washington stage.
“…you're big. You're strong,” she said. “I know the Oval Office, and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn't you stop and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong.”’
“Maybe if I were stronger, I would have,” Comey told her. “I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took in.”
Or maybe the longtime prosecutor was just giving the president enough rope.