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Semantic Tomfoolery at Comey's Senate Hearing

Faced with damning testimony against their president, GOP senators resorted to hair-splitting.
James Comey (second from the right) moves from an open hearing to a closed hearing during a break in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8th, 2017.

James Comey (second from the right) moves from an open hearing to a closed hearing during a break in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8th, 2017.

Bars in Washington, D.C., opened early this morning because when you're about to watch former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, you don't need coffee and donuts—you need strong drink. On the West Coast, some reporters began hitting the juice as early as 6:45 a.m. PST. During some of the committee's more inane questions, Comey the Boy Scout even looked as though he could use a drink; Senator John McCain (R–Arizona) hemmed and slurred as though he'd had several. Throughout, the Republican National Committee tweeted aggressive anti-Comey messages, and Republican senators largely carried water for the president, who is said to have watched Comey's testimony in the company of his lawyer and without tweeting once.

Did President Donald Trump pressure Comey to drop the FBI investigation into former national security advisor Mike Flynn? It appears so. Did that pressure amount to obstruction of justice? Your answer will depend largely on your party. Did Trump effectively offer Comey a quid pro quo, by hinting that Comey's job at the FBI depended on loyalty to Trump—and on dropping the Flynn matter? Again, it appears so: "He's looking to get something from granting my request to stay in my job," is how Comey characterized the subtext of their exchanges. But Trump never made that quid pro quo explicit, which meant that Republican senators got to do some textual analysis.

Comey didn't bother reading his prepared opening statement, since everyone read it last night anyway, with readers marveling at Comey's flair for narrative and his eye for detail. (Even Republicans enjoyed Comey's storytelling: "This is as good as it gets," Senator James Risch [R–Idaho] said of Comey's prose during today's hearing.) Instead, Comey began his testimony today with a brief account of Trump's inappropriate gestures of intimacy in closed-door meetings, including the president's insistent pressure that Comey drop an FBI investigation of Flynn. Comey's choice of words today was less reserved than in his written statement: Describing the Trump administration's retroactive justification for having fired him, Comey told the committee that "the administration then chose to defame me and defame the FBI" by suggesting that the agency was in disarray. "Those were lies, plain and simple," Comey said. Later, when asked why he had kept such detailed memos about his moments with the president, he responded: "I was honestly concerned [Trump] would lie about the content of our meeting." During questions from Senator Diane Feinstein (D–California), Comey suggested that Vice President Mike Pence might have known about Flynn's Russian entanglements before Flynn's resignation; if true, that makes Pence a repeated liar.

(Speaking after Comey's open testimony, Marc Kasowitz, Trump's personal lawyer, delivered a statement at the National Press Club denying many of Comey's claims.)

People drink while watching former FBI Director James Comey's testimony on June 8th, 2017, in Brooklyn, New York City.

People drink while watching former FBI Director James Comey's testimony on June 8th, 2017, in Brooklyn, New York City.

Senator Mark Warner (D–Virginia), who serves as vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, used his own opening remarks to lay out a straightforward version of the mainstream Democratic case that Russian intelligence interfered in our election and helped swing it to Trump. "This investigation is not about re-litigating the election," Warner said. "This is not a witch hunt; it is not fake news; it is an effort to protect our country from a new threat." That threat, Warner said, comes directly from Vladimir Putin, whom Warner called "the Russian dictator," one of many phrases directed straight at the cameras during this open session.

With the exception of Richard Burr (R–North Carolina), Republican senators did their best to feign confusion over what, precisely, was nefarious about any of this. John Cornyn (R–Texas) said that, since Trump's efforts to derail the Russia investigation had failed, those efforts could not have constituted a meaningful obstruction of justice. (Piffle—you don't have to succeed at obstruction to be charged with it.) Then there were Republicans who sought to exonerate Trump on semantic grounds. "I hope you can let this go," Trump told Comey in the former FBI director's version of events. Comey says he understood these words to constitute a directive, but Risch decided to parse the verb:

Risch: He did not direct you to let it go?
Comey: Not in his words, no.
Risch: Again those words are not an order? He said "I hope."
Comey: The reason I keep saying his words is, I took it as a direction. This is the president of the United States. I took it as a direction.

"You don't know anyone who's ever been charged with hoping something?" Risch asked in conclusion, seeming highly pleased with his equivocation.

During her allotted seven minutes, Senator Kamala Harris (D–California) suggested that the words "I hope" assume the quality of a command when the speaker is holding a gun to your head.

As for the tapes that Trump might or might not have, Feinstein asked Comey directly: Are the tapes real?

"Lordy I hope there are tapes," Comey replied. Hear, hear—anything to spare the American people future rounds of semantic tomfoolery by senators of either party.