Some in Washington skipped work Thursday to watch former FBI director James B. Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. That wasn’t necessary for Lillyanne Daigle, who simply followed the rest of her office to a bar.
Daigle, a 29-year-old who works at a nuclear nonproliferation advocacy group, wasn’t playing hooky as she stood in line with hundreds of others outside Shaw’s Tavern, a D.C. bar that opened at 9:30 a.m. to show the Comey hearing on each of its big-screen televisions. All of her co-workers were there on an official field trip.
“I’ve been in D.C. three years. This is my first D.C. scandal,” Daigle said, occasionally peeking at the block-long line of political spectators between herself and the door. “This is the most D.C. thing — watch a political scandal, at a bar.”
“At work,” added Jennifer Knox, one of Daigle’s colleagues.
Hangovers, power breakfasts, sporting events in distant time zones — people have many motives for walking through a saloon door before lunch. In most cities, the opportunity to watch jargon-studded congressional testimony from a fired bureaucrat with hair like Joe Friday is not among them.
But anyone searching for evidence that Washington truly is a place apart from the rest of the country needed look no further Thursday than Shaw’s, one of roughly a half-dozen D.C. watering holes that opened in the morning to show Comey’s testimony.
The patrons were a mix of young and old. Some, in ties or pantsuits, kept up a pretense of workaday seriousness. Others were at their summertime ease in salmon slacks and checkered linen shirts. This being Washington, a few people tried to stake out roles as anonymous sources.
“This is crazy, and just a total testament to how different D.C. is as a city,” a lawyer told a reporter. Then, clenching his jaw, he said he had clients in the federal government. “I think it’s probably best that we stay off the record,” he continued.
Mohammad Al-Rousan, a 22-year-old intern freshly arrived in the capital from Dallas and still not practiced in the dark arts of not-for-attribution quotes, was less guarded.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said, looking wide-eyed around the tavern. The closest he could recall, he said, was a mob scene at a mall for the release of the iPhone 7.
Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, Al-Rousan’s boss at an international aid-and-development outfit, said he wasn’t expecting any smoking-gun moments during Comey’s testimony. Nevertheless, a trip to the bar was a fitting orientation for his new crop of interns, he said.
“What’s more D.C.,” Ghosh-Siminoff said, “than making a huge political circus out of dry testimony in the Senate?”
The patrons weren’t raucous. By midmorning, most were still eating breakfast and favoring coffee over stronger beverages. But, in between long stretches of silence as Comey spoke, they weren’t above an occasional demonstrative outburst — most of it, in a city that voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, directed against President Trump.
When Comey called some of Trump’s statements “lies, plain and simple,” the room erupted in applause. “Aww,” several people intoned when Comey spoke fondly of his former FBI colleagues. His wry laugh-lines — “Yes, because I’ve heard the president say so,” he deadpanned when asked whether the bureau’s investigation of Russian meddling in the election played a role in his firing — were duly met with guffaws.
The mood was more intense up the street at Duffy’s Irish Pub, home of the newly coined “Covfefe Cocktail,” named after one of the president’s less scrutable tweets. Inside the bar, there were few sounds other than senators’ questions and Comey’s answers coming from the wall-mounted TVs. Whenever conversation or laughter periodically rose a few decibels, it was suppressed by another noise rarely heard in Irish pubs: shushing.
Outside on the patio, Hannes Schaser, a 41-year-old German citizen who lives in Arlington, was less constrained. Schaser, a stay-at-home dad with Adidas sneakers and a long prophet’s beard, was feeding his 13-month-old son in a stroller beside him. He said the hearing was living up to its billing as a spectator sport.
“Comey is an entertaining guy, and he loves the stage,” Schaser said. “So why not make it like a sports event?”
As lunchtime approached and Comey wrapped up the public portion of his testimony, a sense of anticlimax set in. Some said he had stolen his own thunder by releasing a written portion of his remarks on the eve of the hearing.
“There’s nothing really damning, or something that we haven’t heard of or thought of before,” said Shaw’s co-owner Eric Heidenberger. But in at least one respect, he added, the hearing was epoch-making: The crowd at the bar, which ultimately ran to about 300, eclipsed turnout at previous election watch nights.
“Nothing before has compared to the outpouring we have seen today,” he said. “I think people want some answers.”
At least one drinking establishment tried to buck the trend. The Pug, in the H Street corridor, had advertised itself on social media as an apolitical foil to bars like Shaw’s and Duffy’s. It opened at 11 a.m. — and resolutely tuned the television to HGTV.
Bartender Russell de Leon, surveying a room empty except for a reporter tapping at her laptop, said the gag didn’t exactly pay off.
“One guy did come in,” he said. “He just sort of stood there for a moment and then walked out.”