The surreal questioning of James Comey
Democrats focused on explosive allegations about Russia and President Trump. Republicans focused on ... leaks.
On Capitol Hill today, Democrats and Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee conducted parallel hearings on completely separate issues — but at the same time, and in the same place.
Only one of them, however, involves what could end up proving to be one of the greatest acts of treason in American history.
At one hearing, Democrats on the committee (above all Rep. Adam Schiff) asked FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers about allegations that Russia actively interfered in the 2016 presidential election to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump — and that senior members of the Trump campaign allegedly colluded with such interference. Comey confirmed for the first time that the FBI is in fact investigating possible "links" between the Trump campaign and Russia, and that the investigation began in July.
If this investigation eventually confirms the existence of such links, it could lead to the indictment of members of the Trump campaign, or perhaps even ensnare the president himself in an investigation of treason. Whether either ends up happening is something that may not be settled for months. But after Monday's testimony, we know at least that both will remain active possibilities for some time to come.
Under Democratic questioning, Comey also basically said that President Trump's tweets alleging that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign were false. The FBI and Justice Department have "no information that supports" the president's allegations, Comey said.
That's a lot of news for one hearing.
But, as I said, there was also another hearing going on at the same time and in the same place. While Democrats were asking about collusion between the president's campaign and a hostile foreign power, Republicans on the committee were interested in a different (but deeply related) issue: unauthorized leaks of classified information by members of the intelligence community to journalists, some of which concerned conversations between incoming (and now erstwhile) National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador to the United States. The leak of these conversations led to Flynn's resignation just three weeks after Trump's inauguration.
As I (and others) argued at the time of Flynn's resignation, those leaks were a big deal. Unelected, anonymous members of the intelligence community should not be leaking to the press unverified information acquired clandestinely to interfere with the functioning of the political branches of government. Doing so is a crime, and it needs to be investigated, as Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and other Republicans emphasized repeatedly in their questioning of Comey and Rogers.
Yet there was also something more than a little bizarre in the Republicans' single-minded focus on leaks and apparent indifference to alleged treasonous acts surrounding the 2016 election. Whereas the Democrats repeatedly paused in their questioning about Russia to note that, yes, leaks are bad, and that they need to be investigated and punished, the Republicans appeared to live in an alternative reality in which the only issue worth discussing or investigating were the leaks and not the possibility of Russia actively working with the campaign of the man who is now president to ensure the defeat of his rival.
Imagine Democrats responding to the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg by focusing exclusively on the details of how and why their co-conspirators turned on them and expressing comparative indifference about their treasonous acts themselves and you get a taste of the surreality on display Monday morning.
Some liberals have stated that this single-minded emphasis on leaks is just the latest example of the GOP putting party before country. There may be considerable truth to this. But if so, it's an incredibly short-sighted form of partisanship. Perhaps some rabid Republicans hate the Democrats so much that they would be unfazed to learn that President Trump's campaign worked with Russian intelligence services to ensure Hillary Clinton's defeat. But would most Republican voters respond this way — expressing greater solidarity with a hostile foreign power than with fellow American citizens who happen to be Democrats? If that's where the bulk of Republican voters are now, then the United States has even bigger problems than the prospect of foreign interference in its elections. It may well be on the verge of civil war.
More likely, an FBI investigation that turned up credible evidence of treasonous acts by members of the Trump campaign would inspire large numbers of Republicans to place country before party and abandon the president. Why wouldn't Gowdy and his Republican colleagues want to hedge their bets against such an outcome by mixing their denunciation of leaks with strong condemnations of Russian behavior and vows to support Comey's ongoing investigation of it?
The only answer that makes any sense is that they think very little of their own voters — so little that they're willing to take a high-stakes bet that these voters will stick with Trump and refuse to stand shoulder to shoulder with Democrats no matter what allegations are made against him or how credible those allegations prove to be.
This pitch-black presumption will likely be put to the test over the coming months.