The most significant aspect of his testimony wasn't what he said, but what he refused to say. Over and over.
At last, after spending two-plus hours testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee and eight minutes staring in genuine bewilderment while John McCain's mainframe hard-rebooted on national television, James Comey's highly anticipated testimony came to a close, and—lo and behold—Donald Trump is still President of the United States. (Or, according to his lawyers, "Predisent" of the United States.) Sorry, intrepid members of the #RESISTANCE. You're going to have to sit tight for a while longer.
While those hoping for fireworks ended the morning by quietly closing their livestream tabs in disappointment, the hearing's most significant revelations relate to the things that, as Comey demurely put it, he couldn't say in an open setting. He could, for example, clarify media reports of the events that led to his termination... but if any answer would cause him to stray onto special prosecutor Robert Mueller's turf and affect the ongoing probe of the White House's Russia connections, Comey would have to clam up. Thus, parsing the questions he declined to answer provides some hints as to what Mueller and company are working hard to uncover:
On Jeff Sessions:
WYDEN: You said that you and the FBI leadership team decided not to discuss the President's actions with Attorney General Sessions, even though he had [yet] not recused himself [from the Russia investigation]. What was it about the Attorney General's interactions with the Russians or his behavior with regard to the investigation that would have led the entire leadership of the FBI to make this decision?
COMEY: Our judgment, as I recall, is that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can't discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic. So we were convinced—in fact, I think we'd already heard the career people were recommending that he recuse himself, that he was not going to be in contact with Russia-related matters much longer.
If Comey can't talk about why he elected not to discuss Trump's conduct with the Attorney General, it's reasonable to infer that those reasons might be a key component of Mueller's investigation! Relatedly, if Jeff Sessions doesn't already have his own legal counsel, he should retain some.
On Jared Kushner:
HEINRICH: There are reports that the incoming Trump administration, either during the transition and/or after the inauguration, attempted to set up a sort of backdoor communication channel with the Russian government using their infrastructure, their devices, their facilities. What would be the risks...of someone not actually in the office of the president yet to setting up unauthorized channels with a hostile foreign government, especially if they were to evade our own American intelligence services?
COMEY: I'm not going to comment on whether that happened in an open setting.
COMEY: Nothing that I can talk about in an open setting.
On Michael Flynn
KING: Is it not true that Mr. Flynn was and is a central figure in this entire investigation of the relationship between the Trump campaign and the Russians?
COMEY: I can't answer that in an open setting, sir.
COTTON: There's a story on January 23rd in The Washington Post that says, entitled “FBI reviewed [Michael Flynn's] calls with Russian ambassador but found nothing illicit.” Is this story accurate?
COMEY: I don't want to comment on that, Senator.
COTTON: Did you ever come close to closing the investigation on Mr. Flynn?
COMEY: I don't think I can talk about that in open setting, either.
On Donald Trump:
COTTON: Do you think Donald Trump colluded with Russia?
COMEY: That's a question I don't think I should answer in an opening setting. As I said, when I left, we did not have an investigation focused on President Trump. But that's a question that will be answered by the investigation, I think.
COTTON: Do you have...any indication of any contact between Trump people and Russians, intelligence officers, other government officials or close associates of the Russian government?
COMEY: That's one I can't answer sitting here.
HARRIS: Are you aware of any meetings between Trump administration officials and Russian officials during the campaign that have not been acknowledged by those officials in the White House?
COMEY: That's not—even if I remembered clearly, that's not a question I can answer in open setting.
Whatever Donald Trump's lawyers think Comey said on Thursday that exonerates their client altogether, I'm... certainly not seeing it from these answers.
On the infamous dossier:
BURR: In the public domain is this question of the “Steele dossier,” a document that has been around for over a year. I'm not sure when the FBI first took possession of it, but the media had it before you had it and we had it. At the time of your departure from the FBI, was the FBI able to confirm any criminal allegations contained in the Steele document?
COMEY: Mr. Chairman, I don't think that's a question I can answer in an open setting because it goes into the details of the investigation.
[rubs hands together eagerly]
BURR: And when you read the dossier, what was your reaction, given that [its coercive efforts were] 100% directed at the President-elect?
COMEY: Not a question I can answer in an open setting, Mr. Chairman.
[moves to edge of seat]
KING: In regard to him being personally under investigation, does that mean that the dossier is not being reviewed or investigated or followed up on in any way?
COMEY: I obviously can't comment either way. I can talk in an open setting about the investigation as it was when I was head of the FBI. It is Bob Mueller's responsibility now. I don't know.
That's the pee tape! The pee tape! The pee tape is real! Maybe. Who knows? (Robert Mueller, hopefully, and soon.)
Hearing James Comey speak on the record was therapeutic for a desperately curious nation that had been starving for more tangible information, but the proceedings didn't shed much light on where, exactly, we stand. Comey's appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee is separate from any information he has provided or will provide to Mueller's team—which, by the way, is still in the process of staffing up. And although Comey met with the special prosecutor earlier in the week, he did so to make doubly sure that he wouldn't share anything sensitive that might interfere with Mueller's work—not to share any bombshells that Mueller didn't already know. (As Politico reported on Tuesday, Mueller said he "would not be surprised" by whatever Comey disclosed publicly.) In other words, the details about which we're most curious are the ones that still remain under lock and key.
In the meantime, the place where Comey's Thursday testimony will have the greatest impact is in the court of public opinion. Media reports and Twitter rumors are one thing, but seeing a former F.B.I. director, under oath, call the sitting President of the United States a liar and allege that Trump secretly attempted to strong-arm him into abandoning a criminal investigation is powerful stuff. Those sound bytes—along with the tantalizing implications of his carefully-considered refusals to address certain questions—will help to boost public interest and keep the Russia story in the headlines. And the longer it stays there, the greater the urgency Mueller's task takes on, and the likelier it becomes that, eventually, Americans get to have all their most pressing questions answered.
Until then, sit back, be patient, and let Robert Mueller cook.
Did Trump Meet with the Russian Ambassador?
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