James Comey’s Russia Rorschach test

Fired FBI Director James Comey’s Thursday testimony in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee about his brief, tumultuous relationship with President Trump meant whatever you thought it meant.

Trump supporters came away thinking Comey didn’t lay a glove on the president and instead exposed himself as a craven political operator and the kind of leaker that Trump is trying to hunt down. To Trump’s opponents, Comey heroically resisted the president’s attempt to an influence an FBI investigation into former national security adviser Mike Flynn and was summarily fired for his independence.

“Today, former FBI Director Comey admitted that Donald J. Trump was never being investigated for colluding with the Russian government,” American First Policies’ Katrina Pierson said after the testimony was over. “He also stated that President Trump did not ask him to stop the Russia probe; in fact, the president expressed an interest and curiosity of his own to get to the bottom of the unfounded allegations of collusion.”

Pierson, the national campaign spokeswoman for Trump last year, concluded, “The president of the United States has been completely vindicated.”

MoveOn.org, the left-wing organization founded to oppose then-President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the late 1990s, had a different assessment. Even before Comey spoke, Anna Galland, the group’s executive director, said in a statement, “The testimony that former FBI Director James Comey is expected to deliver today makes clear that Congress must begin impeachment proceedings immediately.”

“We cannot ‘move on’ from this,” Galland continued. “We will not treat this as normal.”

Maintaining the status quo was a partial victory for Trump. Comey’s public testimony was eventful, but contained few new revelations that will cause Republicans to abandon him.

In fact, Comey affirmed that he had thrice assured the president he wasn’t a target of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He testified Flynn wasn’t especially important to the broader Russia probe. Comey acknowledged Trump wanted to get to the bottom of wrongdoing by “satellite associates” of the campaign or administration.

The public remains skeptical of both Trump and Comey in this back-and-forth. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 56 percent of U.S. adults believe the president is interfering in the Russia investigation, while 61 percent think he fired Comey to save his own skin.

That means Trump, whose job approval ratings sit below 40 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average, needs to do more than just avoiding losing ground. He needs to gain ground back.

But the same poll showed only 36 percent trusted what Comey had to say about Russia “a great deal” or “a good amount” as compared with 55 percent who distrust him to varying degrees. Many Democrats believe Comey cost Hillary Clinton the election by announcing he was reopening the investigation into her emails. Numerous Republicans believe Comey is currently trying to discredit Trump or get him impeached.

“I felt like I was on a roller coaster watching it,” said Republican strategist Jim Dornan. “Ups and downs for both sides, which seems to be Comey’s style: things for either party to hang their arguments on. But no real smoking gun for anyone to grab onto.”

Republicans noticed that when former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who served under former President Barack Obama, asked Comey to avoid referring to a Clinton email “investigation,” the ousted FBI chief said he complied instead of becoming concerned and taking copious notes the way he did with Trump.

Yet Comey still scored some points against Trump.

“Comey put the gossip and rumors to rest when he said he had ‘no doubt’ the Russians systematically tried to influence and undermine the 2016 presidential election,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “Comey said flat-out that the president was a liar.”

Even Comey’s strong criticism of Lynch, Bannon noted, “gave a bipartisan air to his testimony.”

Trump uncharacteristically pulled his punches as Comey testified. He stuck to the script in his speech to social conservatives that followed the hearing. He let his eldest son do the tweeting and let his deputy press secretary and his lawyer do the talking.

No committee Republicans broke ranks against Trump, but they were more tentative in their defenses than Democrats were in their charges he at least tiptoed up to the line of abusing his power.

“[Texas Republican Sen. John] Cornyn and [Arizona Republican Sen. John] McCain tried, but they failed to make Clinton, not Trump, the bad guy,” Bannon said. “Clinton is old news.”

Democrats were fulsome in their praise of Comey despite their past disagreements with his handling of the Clinton “matter” and the election.

“I will say that it will be pretty disingenuous for the Dems to all of a sudden give him praise and props after they spent the last six months trashing him,” said Dornan.

While the politics of Russia remain largely unchanged, one lingering question is whether anything Comey said will make special counsel Robert Mueller more likely to explore obstruction of justice. Trump’s strongest supporters have already stepped up their attacks on Comey as a leaker of privileged conversations.

Trump himself is likely to borrow a page from Bill Clinton, saying that Russia is a distraction from which he needs to move on in order to do the people’s business. Comey testified that the president told him as much.

Moving on will be easier said than done, however. “Since the fog from the Russian investigation hasn’t lifted, this mess will tie Congress in knots for months,” said Bannon.

This post originally appeared on Washington Examiner


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