THE FACT IS THEY ALL LOOKED SHELLSHOCKED BY WHAT COMEY TOLD THEM THIS MORNING.
Congress is pining for a special prosecutor
WASHINGTON—To be perfectly honest, I didn't get to Monday's House Intelligence Committee hearing until the star witness, James Comey, the director of the FBI, had been granted permission by the committee to absent himself to the Gents for a spell. By then, of course, most of the lightning already had struck.
This is what we now know: There is currently an ongoing FBI investigation into possible contacts between the 2016 Trump campaign and various Russian players.
"I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed. Because it is an open ongoing investigation and is classified, I cannot say more about what we are doing and whose conduct we are examining."
That weird tweet from the president* a couple of weeks ago about how the previous administration had wiretapped Trump Tower is absolute horse-hockey. (Director of National Intelligence Mike Rogers similarly debunked the more recent crapola regarding British intelligence.) Here's another thing that was obvious: The members of this committee are scared to death of something—even if it's only the flatly bizarre way this presidency is being conducted.
Consider: Comey was asked about a tweetstorm that had erupted from the president* early Monday morning. He answered as best he could, only to have another tweet launched concerning what he'd just said, to which Comey found himself required to respond. If we're going to have government-by-comment thread, we should at least have a competent moderator.
The fact is they all looked shellshocked by what Comey told them this morning which, it is not unreasonable to speculate, is connected to what they all know but cannot tell. Comey set some kind of congressional record for answering, "I'm not going to get into that," in response to questions aimed at prying out of him information he had no intention of sharing. (Make of that what you will.) Congressman Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas, went all the way through the controversial dossier compiled by retired British spook Christopher Steele, right up to the edge of asking about the really icky parts. Comey stiff-armed him, refusing to respond to Castro's litany of hypotheticals. He did the same thing under questioning by Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California, who kept at Comey about how the Russians did business and how the Trump campaign had done business, and wasn't that a coincidence about how they seemed to do business in the same way?
When looked at through the prism of the 2016 election, and particularly through the prism of what happened to the Democratic candidate, the hearing was positively surreal. South Carolina's Trey Gowdy, Javert of the Benghazi probe, spent a lot of his time decrying Washington's culture of leaking. (It should be recalled at this point that Gowdy's committee was a sieve.) And, of course, there was the spectacle of James Comey, explaining what he thought the Russians were up to last fall.
"They wanted to hurt our democracy, hurt her, help him…Putin hated Secretary Clinton so much that ... He had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much."
This was the Linda Blair moment, at least for me. James Comey—the James Comey, the guy who put both thumbs, both feet, and a small compact car on the scale by releasing his letter to Congress about newly discovered e-maillllllllzzzzzz! a week before the election—was talking about how the Russians were trying to "hurt her." And this on a day when he also testified that the FBI had been investigating the Trump campaign for three months before he went diving into the spotlight on October 28, 2016.
But this bit of galloping absurdity paled next to what Swalwell later would call the "smokebombs" with which the Republicans tried to obscure Comey's appearance. As we noted, there was a lot of talk about leaks and the nefarious gnomes who traffick in them. (Chris Stewart of Utah told Comey that he hoped Comey had a chance to "give those guys a crack in the head.") New York's Elise Stefanik tried to establish that the Russians mucked with both campaigns. Comey agreed but then blew up the entire argument by pointing out that only the material hacked from the Democratic Party was released.
Nobody, however, looked as unsure of his footing as Chairman Devin Nunes, who, not very long ago, was feeling chuffed enough to snark at reporters about how silly this all is. Nunes started the hearing with a mushy appeal to bipartisanship. (Democratic ranking member Adam Schiff of California buried Nunes' remarks by laying out a clear, concise timeline of what already is known about the Trump campaign and the Russians.) Nunes and Schiff got into a hopeless wrangle about the fairly well-known episode at the Republican National Convention when the Trump people forced a change in the platform regarding military aid to Ukraine for its fight against Russian aggression. Nunes denied it ever happened. "In fact," he said, "that provision was made stronger." This is, ahem, contrary to what most people at the convention saw happen before their eyes.
THIS WAS THE LINDA BLAIR MOMENT, AT LEAST FOR ME.
"That's why we need an independent counsel," said one Democratic House member watching from the wings. "It's because of the partisanship. We had a five-minute fight over the Ukraine stuff in the Republican platform."
Indeed, that's where this thing seems to be heading. The nervous quiver you could feel beneath the proceedings on Monday could easily be channeled into an impulse to hand this whole thing off to somebody who doesn't ever have to run for election anywhere. Certainly, the sad and plaintive appeal with which Nunes closed the hearings didn't leave anyone feeling strongly that he wants any part of whether or not there are Russian sublets running the Executive Branch. He begged Comey to hurry up and settle the matter because there is now a "big fat cloud" over the important business the White House has to do. If he's only just noticing, he hasn't been paying attention.
This post has been updated to reflect that Congressman Swalwell is a Democrat.