An extraordinary moment of political theater

Japan is no stranger to political drama. Daily Diet interpellations provide arresting images and sound bites. But rarely is there a scene like that which unfolded last week in Washington, when former FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress on his relations with U.S. President Donald Trump. Trump fired Comey reportedly after the director would not heed the president’s call to tell the public that he was not under investigation or kill the entire Russia inquiry, although various explanations for Trump’s action have been put forth, several by the president himself. Comey’s testimony reveals a president largely unrestrained by the norms that have guided and constrained previous occupants of the White House.

More than 20 million people watched Comey’s televised three-hour testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. His seven-page statement was released the day before his appearance, a move that allowed senators to better prepare questions and probe important issues. Unfortunately, however, some of the most important questions concerned matters that either Comey could not speak about in public session or addressed developments about which he could not speak at all.

The statements Comey could make and the judgments he offered were damning, however. First, there is his characterization of the U.S. president as a liar. Rarely, if ever, has a taciturn, judicious career law enforcement officer used such blunt language to describe his boss. Yet, Comey did it and repeatedly throughout his appearance. Second, there was Trump’s utter disregard for established procedures to insulate law enforcement from political pressure. This took the form, most simply, in meetings between Comey and Trump — Comey pointed out that he talked to President Barack Obama just twice during his eight years in office, but either met or discussed matters with Trump nine times in just four months — and those encounters included blunt requests to bend rules and procedures on the president’s behalf, whether it was providing public denials that Trump was under investigation or shutting down the inquiry into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s behavior and ties to Russia.

Equally troubling for Comey was a sense that the president was trying to create a “patronage relationship” with him, one that would create obligations that the FBI director “owed” the president and undermined the independence of his office and institution. Comey’s concern was such that he felt obliged to memorialize every conversation with the president as soon as it occurred to ensure that there was a contemporaneous record of each encounter and he shared them with colleagues to ensure that other senior officials of the FBI and the Justice Department were aware of the situation and the facts.

His distrust of the Justice Department senior bureaucracy is the third remarkable element of his testimony. Comey noted almost in passing that it was widely believed in the FBI that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would have to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Given the various investigations into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, this is a damning inference and one that is certain to spur further Congressional inquiry.

More incredible still is Comey’s admission that he gave the memos of his conversations to a former colleague with instructions to leak them to the media. For a man who has railed against, and even investigated, leakers throughout his career, this is an extraordinary act. Not only does it appear to violate his professional code of ethics, but he did it because he did not trust his superiors to be nonpartisan, for as he admitted in his statement, he hoped that the leak would spur the appointment of a special prosecutor.

Responses to Comey’s appearance were predictable. Democrats were astounded by the portrait of the president and the attorney general and demanded more information. Republican senators appeared to protect the president and dismiss Comey as a disgruntled employee, a showboat or a loose cannon. Those defenders fault Comey for failing to say “no” directly to the president when asked to bend the rules, claim he exaggerated the force of Trump’s request — asserting that the president’s statement in a private setting that “I hope you can let this go” is not an order — or minimize the president’s words and deeds as the behavior of someone who does not understand how the presidency works.

Trump suffered a day in silence before blasting Comey for lying and, simultaneously, noted that he vindicated the president’s claim that he was not under investigation. He appeared to say that he would under oath contradict Comey’s claims but a careful parsing of his language leaves, as usual, considerable room for maneuver.

Comey’s testimony confirmed two things. First, Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election were serious and need to be investigated fully and future acts deterred. Second, it confirmed the dangerous inclinations of Trump. It is to be hoped that he is, indeed, just naive but the evidence suggests conclusions more disturbing. If so, it is up to Republicans to protect the party and the country.