The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The weird moment on Colbert’s show that captured our political whiplash

Curiouser and curiouser: A copy of the letter sent to FBI Director James Comey from President Trump Tuesday informing him that he has been terminated. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The news of James Comey’s political demise had broken less than 10 minutes before Stephen Colbert began his late-show taping on Tuesday evening. And when he informed his live audience, trapped in a dead-zone soundstage — “the FBI director has just been fired by Donald Trump” — they initially reacted by breaking into cheers.

This was a man, after all, that Colbert’s liberal-leaning viewership had viewed as a bad guy. He raised Hillary Clinton’s email scandal from the dead; he might have cost her the election.

“Wow, wow,” Colbert said, appearing taken aback by the applause. “Huge, huge Donald Trump fans here tonight.”

The audience quieted. They realized, now, that cheering for Comey’s ousting in fact meant cheering for Trump, a man they disliked even more than Comey. A man whose rationale for the firing — Comey had been unfair to Clinton — neatly sidestepped the fact that Trump himself had spent months encouraging chants of “Lock her up.”

It was a moment of whiplash in a political climate that has become nothing but: Unexpected Syrian airstrikes. A border wall that would be built, then wouldn't, and then perhaps was already being built, according to photos, but then the photos were perhaps just part of a construction site.

Late-night comedians have had no shortage of material after President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey this week. (Video: The Washington Post)

Earlier this week, former acting attorney general Sally Yates went before a Senate committee, answering charges that she should have enforced Trump’s “travel ban” by explaining that she’d told the same Senate committee, when it confirmed her, that she would decline to enforce laws she found unconstitutional.

Also a few days ago, the White House simultaneously blamed Barack Obama for the fact that Trump hired (now-resigned) national security adviser Michael Flynn, but then also acknowledged that Obama had warned Trump not to hire him, but then also said that the warning was not taken seriously because Obama might have been sour grapes, but then also — um . . . Vladi­mir Putin? Diplomatic relations? Mike Pence?

You know what, we are not entirely sure what happened there. It’s complicated. It’s complicated, and tedious, and the fact that these issues relate to the core of our national security does not make them less tedious. It just makes us feel more pressured in our ability understand them — news consumption as a full-time job.

Senate testimony as migraine. Whiplash as the nation’s collective preexisting condition.

James Comey is a dangerous partisan who needs to step down? (The Democrats, circa October). James Comey was a dedicated public servant who never should have been treated this way? (The Democrats, circa Wednesday). James Comey was good, but then did a bad thing, but was then in the middle of a secret Russia thing, and, don’t change horses midstream, and also, dance with the one that brung you.

Switch channels away from Stephen Colbert, and you could see television hosts begin to shape the story based on the partisan leanings of their respective news channels: MSNBC explaining to liberals how the real issue was Donald Trump’s hypocrisy. Fox News explaining to conservatives how the real issue was liberals’ hypocrisy.

You could turn to CNN and see Anderson Cooper sputter words such as “bogus” and “ridiculous,” and then, in the middle of his prime-time show, deliver an elaborate eye roll to Kellyanne Conway.

The turmoil surrounding former FBI Director James Comey and President Trump started long before Comey was fired on May 9. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Julio Negron/The Washington Post, Photo: Andrew Harrer/The Washington Post)

Somewhere in the late evening, news drifted out that the White House was surprised by the backlash it had received for the firing.

But it wasn’t backlash for the citizens of country; it was the whiplash that has become commonplace. One day we’ll just all get dizzy and fall down, too exhausted to maintain constant vigilance.

At the center of it all was a letter with its own perplexing content: the short, one-pager written by Donald Trump to formally enact the firing.

It will go down in history as having a museum-worthy second paragraph: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”

I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinski.

I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.

I am not a crook.

It is rare for a single sentence to so thoroughly encapsulate one man’s current psyche, and to become such an immediate artifact of the time in which it was written. The letter was grandiose and insecure, highly specific but provided no checkable details. Trump used it to defend himself against Comey’s firing before anybody had asked for a defense.

Newscasters called the letter “bizarre”; one former Republican attorney general called it “totally inappropriate.” It really wasn’t either. It was whiplash. It felt, at this point, pretty normal.

A few minutes into Colbert’s opening monologue, he made a crack about Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The audience immediately clapped, relieved to be in their element. They knew Sessions was a bad guy. Right? Something to hold on to.