It took only mere minutes for James Comey to call one of his meetings with President Trump “very disturbing” and to accuse his administration of trying to “defame” him and the FBI with “lies.”
But the fired FBI director also told the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday that “it’s not for me to say” whether the president was engaged in obstructing justice.
That, in essence, captures the media and political divide over the Capitol Hill extravaganza, which was carried live by the broadcast networks as well as cable news with all the advance hype that these are the next Watergate hearings.
If the bar is whether Trump obstructed justice—which would be an impeachable offense—then Comey’s testimony fell significantly short of that and actually helped the president.
But if the bar is whether Trump acted improperly—asking an FBI chief for his loyalty and saying he hoped Comey could drop the Mike Flynn probe—then Comey’s testimony was damaging.
The anti-Trump partisans are reacting by saying hey, this is awful stuff, it was like a scene from “The Godfather,” no president should be pressuring an FBI director in this fashion.
The pro-Trump partisans are reacting by saying the Democrats are desperate to show that the president broke the law and that Comey actually vindicated him—in part by confirming that he had told the president three times he wasn’t personally under investigation.
And there is this bottom line: Comey confirmed that the president made no effort to derail the Russia investigation, only the part involving Flynn.
Comey said he didn’t know for sure why he was fired, but he takes Trump at his word when the president told Lester Holt that the Russia probe was a factor.
Much of the hearing turned on Comey’s reactions to the president’s words, and he acknowledged being cowardly at times in not confronting Trump over what he perceived as inappropriate conduct. On the president’s hope that he would stop pursuing “good guy” Flynn, Comey said: “I took it as a direction…This is what he wants me to do.”
Comey also admitted being the source of at least one crucial leak in the case. After Trump wondered on Twitter whether there might be tapes of their conversations, Comey wanted to get his memos of their talks into the press.
“I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter” for the New York Times, Comey testified, identifying the source only as a Columbia Law School professor. He said he hoped I would lead to the naming of a special counsel.
That was merely confirmation of what has obviously been Comey’s well-orchestrated leak campaign, which included Wednesday’s release of his opening statement, which dominated the pre-hearing news cycle and which he didn’t bother to read yesterday.
Comey also said “there have been many, many stories” about Russia and related matters that “are just dead wrong.” He included a Feb. 14 Times story headlined “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence,” which he said was “not true.” But Comey did not specify the mistakes.
A Times spokeswoman said a review of its coverage "found no evidence that any prior reporting was inaccurate. In fact, subsequent reporting by The Times and other media outlets has verified our reporting as the story makes clear." She said the paper would welcome any details from Comey or the FBI.
Unless more details leak out of the panel’s closed-door session, it’s fair to say that Comey aired his complaints and criticisms of the president who fired him but did not further implicate him in potential wrongdoing. And that means both sides can declare victory.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.