Lordy. Lordy! Former FBI director James “I hope there are tapes” Comey testified in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday, and the city of Washington rose to its maximum geekscape potential by making a three-hour broadcast of one wonk talking to other wonks in a hearing room the event of the season.
“We’re crazy people,” explained Benjamin Higgs, who had awoken at 3:45 a.m. in order to arrive in line at the Hart Senate Office Building by 4:15 a.m. in the hopes of getting in-person seats to the show.
“How would you feel if you got in line at 6:30 and got stopped right here?” Ben Hunt, an intern from Oklahoma, asked his fellow intern Emily Bishop when the door to the committee room was in sight.
“Hopefully we can at least see [Comey] walk by,” Bishop consoled Hunt.
“Geezus bejeezus,” remarked another line stander, while nearby a middle-aged woman was noticing that because of the order in which different lines were permitted entrance, congressional interns would be given preference over the general public.
“Every possible seat is taken by the butt of an intern!” she protested. “A lot of people are pissed off.”
Nearby, a man handed out yarmulkes with “Donald Trump” emblazoned on them.
Senate committee hearings are exciting only once every 30 years, which we can calculate with precision based on the fact that Thursday was also the 30th anniversary of the epic hearing when the complex scandal of Iran and hostages and — um, Nicaragua? Lebanon? — finally snapped into focus for millions of American as Oliver North’s gorgeous secretary Fawn Hall testified about stuffing secret documents down her shirt.
Thursday’s hearing was a chance for the public to hear Comey expound upon his relationship with Donald Trump, which was apparently marked by “awkward silences” and Comey’s increasingly desperate attempts to extricate himself from a situation that he found befuddling and strange.
Would the lawman talk more about the intimate dinner he was summoned to attend at the White House? (Yes. It forced him to cancel a date with his wife. “In retrospect,” he said, “I wish I had been there that night.”) About the president’s demands for loyalty? About Russia? About Russian prostitutes? Was this testimony the beginning of something? The end of something?
As spectacle and drama, it was extraordinary: The former FBI director testified under oath that a sitting president had lied to the American public.
The hearing played on the televisions over the check-in counters at Reagan National Airport. It played in offices around the metropolitan area, where bosses brought in popcorn makers and colleagues launched “Covfefes with Comey” — you know, drinking coffee together in front of the TV and calling it a team-building exercise. In Farrugut Square, an elderly office manager at a dental clinic taught herself how to set up Roku so that the hearing could be live-streamed to patients waiting to have their cavities filled.
Bars held viewing parties. Union Pub, a bar less than 1,000 feet from the Hart Building, promised to hand out free drinks every time Trump tweeted in response to the hearing. Although the president abstained from social media, by the 10 a.m. start time, the place was a sweaty mess smelling of morning vodka. Clusters of people had brought in their laptops to work as they watched, some in blazers and work attire, others in what were frankly pajamas.
“It’s nice to have a shared experience,” said Tessa Merna, a data sciences consultant who had arrived at 8:30 a.m.
Near-empty Metro cars sped ghostlike along their tracks as their usual riders stayed aboveground, clinging to reliable WiFi, and other people tweeted photos of these empty cars as a way to say, get a load of Washington today.
As C-SPAN’s Senate channel trained its cameras on Comey, who was testifying that he’d begun documenting his interactions with the president because he was “honestly concerned” that Trump might lie about them, the C-SPAN channel dedicated to the House of Representatives was broadcasting a Georgia congressman, who had taken the floor to pontificate about the Allman Brothers. As a visual aid, he wielded a giant poster of the Allman Brothers.
Important note: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” is a quote attributed to King Henry II, speaking of Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, and alleged to have resulted in the archbishop’s murder when the king’s followers interpreted it as an order. Comey used it while being questioned by Sen. Angus King about the time he says President Trump asked him to drop the Michael Flynn investigation, which seemed to deflate the Maine independent just a little.
“I was just going to quote that,” King said.
Over in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel, televisions played the hearing on three news stations, while approximately 12 actual visitors were observed by reporters from five separate news outlets, who had been sent to ascertain just how Trump supporters felt about all of this.
“I’m sticking by his side till the end,” said Scott Cowpland, a supporter visiting from Florida.
“If he wants loyalty, he’s got loyalty,” said his friend Ann Mytnik.
An hour later, all of the televisions had been switched to Fox News, except one, which was playing a tennis match.
The sun was bright. It was a glorious day. On park benches, people stared at their phones, refreshing Twitter updates on the hearing.
Back at the Capitol, the line to get into the room itself showed no sign of waning.
“I’m wondering why anyone would wait six hours to sit in a committee hearing,” a Republican staffer asked incredulously.
Two would-be viewers, Kerri Haider and Merrill Simpson, stood in the back of the line and considered their options. Ten minutes passed. The line did not budge.
“That’s it,” Haider said, turning to her friend. “We’re going to an Ag hearing.”
Dan Zak and Joe Heim contributed to this report.