The Comey testimony was riveting reality TV
This tabloidy government hearing was a sneaky crash course in how things are and how they're supposed to be
Former FBI Director James Comey's testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee was exceptional reality TV in an era dominated by a reality TV president. Comey's testimony had it all: juicy tidbits, a complicated back story, rousing exhortations about the integrity of American institutions, and enormously high stakes. Of all the questions asked, perhaps the most interesting one was posed by the GOP's official Twitter account after the thing was done. "What did you learn from the #ComeyHearing today?" it tweeted, offering some snarky responses.
The answer was of course supposed to be: nothing.
The goal was to paint this as a witch hunt. Here's yet another instance of the president being victimized and mistreated. And he's vindicated, yet again! It's a line that's worked to deafen many Trump supporters to the unforced errors pouring out of the White House: Somehow, none of it is true. Or if it is true, it's misrepresented. And in any case, there's no evidence.
The trouble (for the GOP Twitter account) is that this hearing was uniquely resistant to those amnesiac nostrums. This isn't a New York Times story you, Hypothetical Trump Supporter, don't like; it's a bipartisan committee in the United States Senate. That makes it harder to dismiss as "fake news" or the work of Evil Pizzagating Democrats. It's chaired by a Republican, Senator Richard Burr. It stars the FBI director who arguably cost Hillary Clinton the presidency. Best of all, it's high-stakes enough that everyone planned to watch it. This was an opportunity for you to see all the testimony yourself, firsthand — and make your own judgments, and even compare how different outlets covered it.
If there was any way of getting through to the "fake news" crowd that only listens to Infowars because Breitbart's gone too mainstream, this was it. We're in something of an educational crisis in America right now. People don't understand government any more than they understand journalism. Take the new resistance to "anonymous sources." While there are reasonable debates to be had about anonymous sourcing, a hefty percentage of those who object to them don't understand what anonymous sourcing requires: They don't know that there are standards, or that things aren't just made up.
If the country's impression of journalism has suffered, their opinion of government is worse. This hearing was a beleaguered government's chance to get through to voters who think every new revelation is just another attempt to snooker them and smear the president. It was also the government's best chance at educating an amazingly ignorant public — I'm including liberals and conservatives here — about how these institutions should work and why their proper function matters. How should an attorney general speak to an FBI director? Is it weird for the president to call up an FBI director on the phone? One reason the American public has been slow to respond to the Trump administration's unprecedented violations of government norms is that they no longer understand what those norms are.
On this front, the hearing was a huge success. It was pedagogical without being boring. This was reality TV with vitamins. It was Sesame Street for adults. At a moment when few Americans understand much of anything about how government works, what norms are, or why it matters that they're violated, this was — to put it bluntly — the best and most educational use of reality television I have ever seen.
As we think about what exactly bipartisan hearings like this do for American democracy — specifically, the pedagogical function they serve to an alienated and uninformed public — I want to start by taking the GOP's Twitter account seriously for a moment. Let's live with this idea that nothing was gained by this hearing.
For Republicans anxiously dismissing the hearing as a non-story, the major takeaway — besides the fact that Comey leaked one of his memos — was that the president was indeed informed that he was not under investigation. The right's crowing emphasis on this latter point is perplexing to some on the other side, but the president's supporters were evidently heartened to learn that Trump's claim (in his oddly self-referential letter firing Comey) that he was not under investigation was true. That several other things Trump has said — Russian interference was a hoax, the FBI was in disarray, Comey was "a nutjob," and the dinner with Trump came at his request because he was groveling to keep his post — turned out not to be true did not much interest them. Nor were they impressed by the fact that Trump tried to pressure Comey into protecting chum and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn by "hoping" Comey would let the investigation into Flynn's ties to Russia go. This was inappropriate, to be sure, but they chalk it up to the septuagenarian real estate maven's youth and inexperience.
Now, one might ask, as Chris Wallace did, to his credit: "Why would you kick out the vice president, the attorney general, and the chief of staff if it was going to be something innocent?" A stranger to our political landscape might speculate that excluding the very people capable of acting in a supervisory role (or as witnesses) suggests at least a vague awareness that you're about to do something improper. Not Republicans. The GOP is banking on its constituents refusing to reason or learn — hence the GOP account's Tweet.
It's a bet they've extended to the president himself. The emerging consensus among those attempting to defend the president is that Trump knew (and indeed, knows) virtually nothing. How could the president have guessed that asking the director of the FBI to ease up on a self-confessed foreign agent for one government (who had unlicensed contacts with another) was imprudent? A skeptic might appeal to common sense. An observer of this hearing, however, would respond that Comey himself educated the president per his account of their January 27 dinner. "At one point," Comey says, "I explained why it was so important that the FBI and the Department of Justice be independent of the White House."
Comey's written testimony — issued the day before the hearing — is another effort at precisely this kind of education. Hearings are hard. Very few people watch them all the way through, and a great deal of knowledge is assumed that the average American won't have. What Comey's "testimony" — quotes added because the seven-page document was billed as what he would say even though he never actually said it out loud — really offered was a careful civics lesson. In that document, Comey carefully laid out — for an American public that has no idea — what the expectations of the relationship between an FBI director and a president were and precisely how they were violated.
The GOP is betting instead on stupidity — their constituency's and Trump's. According to them, anything Trump does has an innocent (or at least ignorant) explanation. His call for the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton's emails was a joke. His Tweet obliquely threatening Comey by referencing "tapes" of their conversations was less a ham-handed attempt to intimidate than a happy hypothetical, a showerthought shared with a welcoming world. A similar Tweet about former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates — one of several people who warned him about Michael Flynn — "speaks for itself." As for the president's remarks to Comey, well, is it a crime to hope? Senator Risch's ability to pleasantly construe Trump's "hope" that the FBI would "let Flynn go" is a lesson in optimism: "You may have taken it as a direction, but that's not what he said. He said 'I hope'. You don't know anyone who's been charged for hoping something?" Hope is a fine thing, Risch reminds us, and Trump's typical use of the word does evoke sunny futures and spring days — see for example his Tweet that "James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes.'"
Other revelations — that the FBI knows of classified reasons why Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from the Russia probe, for example — interest Republicans not at all. What of Comey saying that he could not — in an open setting — answer whether he thinks Trump himself colluded with Russia? A non-story.
Maybe it's unsurprising that prominent Republicans are trying to handwave away this strange episode in American history. But progress happens slowly and incrementally. It happens at the level of each individual viewer and voter, and in practice, I think the country learned a great deal. And I think the Senate Intelligence Committee expected that: Senator Richard Burr, the committee chairman, told TMZ: "I think there's gonna be a big national and international viewership of this," and prepared accordingly. He carefully outlined the context and framework of the inquiry — not for the committee, but for the public.
Look: People watch "reality TV" for a few reasons, none of them educational. Maybe it's drama. Maybe it's watching a guy talk about the guy who fired him. Maybe it's the illusion of unmediated access. Even if we all understand that these hearings are largely scripted, live television is as real as it gets, and there was a tawdry thrill to hearing the ocean of clicking camera shutters as James Comey posed, staring straight ahead. But they also watch because reality TV actually does slip a little reality into its over-produced nonsense. Comey's poise there, for instance, demonstrated two things: first, that he knew exactly how he wanted to be photographed and what effect he wished to produce; second, that he was able to sustain both the pose and the very particular impassive expression for a long time. This is a man with a great capacity for control. But third, it showed that he was nervous: Once the cameras were done, he bounced up and down a little and settled into his seat, folded his hands together, twiddled this thumbs.
Those are the interesting and rewarding details for which people watch reality TV, which everyone understands is scripted and produced — it's for those tiny glimmers of humanity that peep through these otherwise filtered and formalized settings and let us draw our own conclusions.
To answer the GOP Twitter account's question, I don't know what people learned from that hearing. Maybe it was substantive. Maybe it wasn't. Maybe someone learned that Attorney General Sessions is in more trouble than we thought. Maybe someone else learned that Comey likes to use the word "fuzz." But at this inflection point in our national truth-seeking, when no one knows what to believe, even that's valuable: Watching these people exist and interact lets people form their own judgments about them. And if this turns into the He-Said/He-Said it's shaping up to be, well — there's a lot of spin to come. But it matters that people watched this; not just because they got exposed to James Comey's person and prose, but because this tabloidy government hearing was a sneaky crash course in how things are and how they're supposed to be.