Washington will be riveted this week by the drama surrounding former FBI Director James Comey’s expected congressional testimony.
But Republicans elsewhere in the country say they couldn’t care less.
Interviews with GOP activists across the country, including around a dozen attendees at this weekend’s North Carolina Republican convention, reveal deep mistrust of Comey, who was investigating possible connections between Russia and the Trump campaign before the president fired him.
Comey, slated to appear before the Senate intelligence committee on Thursday, is also expected to respond to reports that Trump pressured him to give former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn a pass. Yet there is little Comey could say this week that would change how grassroots Republicans view the president.
“There’s nothing about Jim Comey that I trust,” said state Sen. Ron Rabin. “There’s nothing consistent about what he says.”
Asked whether Comey has any credibility, he offered a view shared by many Republican activists gathered at this airy waterfront convention center: “None. Zero.”
Nationally, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, operatives and donors have expressed alarm about the complicated, multifaceted issue of Russian involvement in an American election, some of which Comey is expected to speak to this week. Some, like Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican of Idaho, have vouched for his credibility, especially given reports that he has contemporaneous notes from conversations with Trump.
But at this convention, which offered a snapshot of the Republican grassroots, many considered the broader Russia issue as, at best, a distraction from issues like health care and the economy. And others saw the swirling questions around Russia—including the Comey investigation and coming testimony—as pure partisanship driven by Democrats and the media to undermine the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s victory last November.
“The whole thing with Russia is nonsense,” says Jim Gannon, a GOP activist in North Carolina.
“They’re desperately trying to justify why Hillary Clinton lost other than saying Democratic policies aren’t acceptable to people,” said Gannon. “This whole thing is a pretty desperate attempt at partisan politics. ‘Wow, the Russians swung the election.’ What did they do, come and vote? No.”
U.S. intelligence experts, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, have been adamant that Moscow did in fact interfere with the 2016 campaign, and intelligence officials have said Russia pushed for hacking of Democratic officials’ emails. Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied this, saying in a recent interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly that such an order could have come from anyone, including from Americans.
Allison Powers, an attendee who said she is the secretary of the Charlotte-area Union County GOP, was inclined to believe him.
“Putin suggested Russia’s being made a scapegoat for hacking,” she said. “That’s what I think too.”
Long-time U.S. government officials—the “deep state,” she calls them—“don’t want Trump. They’re trying to mess him up.”
Others didn’t go that far, but a number of people questioned whether Russia had really sought to interfere with the U.S. election.
“We need to do everything we can to become allies with Russia,” said T.J. Johnson, the vice president of the North Carolina Federation of Republican Men. “As for election meddling, I don’t think they really had anything to do with it.”
And some argued that even if Russia did meddle, America has engaged in similar political interference in other countries. It was an echo of Trump’s broader defense of Putin earlier this year, after former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly called the Russian leader a “killer.”
“There are a lot of killers,” Trump replied. “You think our country’s so innocent?”
The remark made many hawkish Republicans—who have spent careers preaching the virtues of American exceptionalism—cringe at what they saw as moral equivalence.
But attendees here in Wilmington also stressed that they don’t see the Russia issue as particularly relevant, and said they would rather focus on domestic issues Republicans promised to move on (though lawmakers have often been thrown off course by each new Russia revelation, which has distracted from their congressional agenda).
There is also a chance that Trump will move to keep Comey from testifying at all by invoking executive privilege, though administration officials downplayed that possibility in a New York Times report over the weekend.
“This whole thing about Comey testifying is really big news in D.C. and for people that live on this stuff, but to people concerned about earning a living, raising kids, putting a few bucks in retirement, this is not important,” Gannon said.
Across the country, actor Antonio Sabato Jr.—a Trump-supporting California congressional candidate of “General Hospital” fame—was more succinct: “Russia, it’s a disgrace. We have more important issues to think about” than “Russia fake stories.”
Still, some Republican activists are expected to tune in to the Comey hearing, even if they take a dim view of him and the investigation he used to lead.
“A lot of people are going to pay attention,” said Kansas GOP Chairman Kelly Arnold. “This is the first time he’s really spoken publicly since being terminated by the president. I think people will listen to what he has to say, and all Americans are wanting to find out what the facts are in a lot of these allegations that get thrown around. They’re wanting to know what the truth is, want to know if there were any laws broken.”
Back in North Carolina, some convention attendees, such as Tom Fyle—a city councilman from Wilson, N.C., near Raleigh—said they would also be listening to the Comey testimony. But they didn’t expect to learn much.
“The facts,” Fyle said, when asked what he’d be watching for.
But he made clear that he doesn’t believe Comey is a trustworthy source of such information: “I don’t know that he’s credible with facts. He hasn’t been credible so far.”
Certainly, there were some in attendance who said that if Russia did in fact meddle in the election, that should be cause for concern, and should be treated as a national security issue.
“It all needs to get out there, all responsible people want to know what happened,” said Chuck Kitchen, the former Durham County Attorney who reluctantly voted for Trump in the general election. He wasn’t sure if Comey’s testimony was the best way to do that, but added, “The thing I’m concerned about is if Russia did meddle in the election. I think it should concern all Americans.”
North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr is the chairman of the intelligence committee, and some said they would trust his findings. And a number of attendees, including Kitchen, praised Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading an investigation into the issue. They said they hoped such an appointment would get the White House and Congress back to focusing on policy.
“We’ve spent so much time on the Russian probe, that it is frustrating because we’re not getting other things done,” said Michele Woodhouse, an attendee from Raleigh.
Woodhouse doesn’t find Comey trustworthy, but said Mueller is someone who has earned bipartisan praise, and could free up Congress to turn back to issues like health care and the tax code. Asked if she could trust Mueller’s ultimate assessment, wherever he lands, she replied, “Absolutely. No matter what he says.”
But outside the convention center, protesters made clear that the left won’t make it easy for the GOP turn back to bread-and-butter domestic issues anytime soon.
“Russia!” someone yelled. “Y’all got a Russian flag in there?”