One day of huffing, another day of puffing, and we’re just about where we were. Half of us want Donald Trump’s presidency to succeed, whether we like everything about the Donald or not, and the other half regards him as the anti-Christ.
James Comey’s big day before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee was treated in Washington as something of a national holiday, with everyone gathered around television sets in offices, bars and shops to watch the bombs fall, to watch Channel 4 mortar Channel 9.
The president was expected to be in rags and tatters by the end of the day, but he was hardly damaged. Mr. Comey hurled no grenades, but landed an occasional punch, and when night fell Democratic dreams of impeaching the president had shrunk from no fire, no smoke, to not even an incriminating vapor.
“The assumption of the critics of the president, of his pursuers, you might say,” as Chris Matthews of MSNBC did say, “is that somewhere along the line in the last year the president had something to do with colluding with the Russians … to affect the election in some way. And yet what came apart this morning was that theory.”
More in sorrow than anger, said a disappointed Mr. Matthews, a fierce and resistant Democrat until the last yellow dog dies, Mr. Comey revealed that Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn “wasn’t central to the Russian investigation,” and that kills the idea that he might have been in a position to testify against the president. “And if that’s not the case, where’s the ‘there’ there.”
The Donald was revealed again as a man who talks too much, with a gift for the memorable insult, the demand to have his ego stroked. But didn’t we already know that? What we know now about James Comey, only suspected earlier, is that he’s what the British call “wet,” a wimp under pressure. He offered evidence at last of collusion, but it was only evidence of his eagerness to collude with his own emotions. He was incapable of standing up to Donald Trump, beyond the instinctive deference everyone accords a president.
He’s guided by his feelings, which perhaps explains why he has become a late hero of the present age. He testified that he “felt” “directed” to terminate the investigation into the activities of Mike Flynn. “I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying, ‘I hope this.’ I took it as, this is what he wants me to do.”
One of the most telling moments of the day was an exchange with Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a Democrat, asking the question that Republicans have raised over the weeks of rumor and not much real news. When he “felt” that Mr. Trump was asking him to throttle his investigation, she asked: “Why didn’t you stop, and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong?’ “
“That’s a great question,” Mr. Comey replied. “Maybe if I were stronger, I would have.”
This is the rough and tough G-man, scourge of killers, robbers, rapists, terrorists and purveyors of wicked mayhem the world over. “Maybe if I were stronger, I would have.” That’s a real man that real men would follow anywhere.
Another Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, asked him the $64 question: “Do you believe this rises to obstruction of justice?” He wanted to answer. What was the point of his big day, otherwise? Maybe if he were stronger, he would have. But he just didn’t know. “That’s Bob Mueller’s job, to sort that out.”
The biggest bombshell of the day — more a grenade than a bomb — was his disclosure that he was the leaker of one of his memos to the press, meant to put some steam in the Democratic campaign to make the sacking ofJames Comey a new Watergate. “My judgment was,” he said, “I need to get that out into the public square.” He couldn’t actually screw up the courage to drop the dime himself, so he farmed it out to a college professor friend.
Mr. Comey’s big day was not a good day for fake news and anonymous sources. He confirmed the president’s assertion that the FBI director had in fact told him three times that he was not a target of the investigation. CNN and ABC News both had reported that he would call that a lie, and both networks had to “correct” and “retract” in lieu of apologizing manfully to their viewers.
Even more damning for the fake-news industry was the debunking of the story in The New York Times, headlined “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence,” that first sent the story “viral.” What a terrific story. This would be worth a Pulitzer for sure. But maybe not. “In the main,” testified Mr. Comey, “it was not true.”
But the beat goes on. You can be sure of that.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.