FBI Director James B. Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Monday, a highly anticipated event that yielded confirmation of an investigation into contacts between Donald Trump's campaign and Russian officials during the 2016 election.
I watched, tweeted and picked some of the best and worst of the hearing. Here they are:
* James Comey: Comey is an old hand at these sorts of hearings. But he still put on a command performance on Monday. He wanted to make two points: 1) The FBI is investigating connections and possible collusion between Trump's campaign and Russian intelligence officials, and 2) zero evidence has been found by either the FBI or the broader Justice Department to support Trump's wiretapping claims. Comey did both — and those were the two main headlines of the day. He also displayed a remarkable ability to walk the very fine line between what he could say and what he should say. The FBI director was polite but firm and totally unwilling to entertain the dozens of hypotheticals thrown at him by members of Congress on both sides.
* Adam B. Schiff: Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, was the most effective panel member from his party in laying out the Russia case and undermining Trump's wiretapping claims. It wasn't perfect — he went on way too long at the opening of the hearing when everyone and their brother wanted to hear from Comey — but Schiff asked the right questions in a straightforward and intelligible way. His profile has soared amid the ongoing Russia investigation, and his performance on Monday won't slow that rise. The question is what Schiff wants to do next. If Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) decides not to run for reelection in 2018, that might be an opportunity for Schiff to move onto an even bigger stage.
* Trey Gowdy: The South Carolina congressman isn't everyone's cup of tea. He mugs for the cameras, dramatically pauses and, broadly speaking, knows he is performing for a national (cable) audience every second. Those quirks notwithstanding, I thought Gowdy did the best job of scoring points on the question of the illegality of the leaks coming out of the intelligence community — better than Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who chairs the committee. Gowdy also has a sense of humor — about himself and politics more generally — that I thought he showcased nicely, particularly in the waning moments of the very long hearing.
* Elise Stefanik: The Republican from New York is one of the most junior members of the committee. Which means she didn't get first, second or even third cut at questioning Comey or Rogers. In fact, she didn't get to ask her first question until the hearing had gone on for more than four hours. Still, Stefanik was insightful and probing — asking good questions that actually elicited responses from Comey and Rogers. Kudos.
* Donald Trump: During a break in the action around 1 p.m. Eastern time, former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) acknowledged on CNN that the morning had not gone well for the president. Correct. For all of the attempts by Republican members to focus on the potential criminality of the leaking from the intelligence community, the big takeaways — no wiretapping evidence, an ongoing Russia investigation — were bad news for Trump. Perhaps trying to turn things around, he tweeted this around lunchtime:
FBI Director Comey refuses to deny he briefed President Obama on calls made by Michael Flynn to Russia. pic.twitter.com/cUZ5KgBSYP
— President Trump (@POTUS) March 20, 2017
But Comey did no such thing. He simply didn't comment on a question Gowdy asked him. And Comey had made clear repeatedly during the day that his refusal to answer certain questions should, in no way, be taken as a tacit admission of anything. Which, of course, is exactly what Trump did. Coming out of the hearing, the questions about wiretapping and Russia are going to grow louder. And that's bad for Trump.
* K. Michael Conaway: The Texas Republican seemed to think he had spotted a crack in Comey's answer about the goal of Russian hacking in the election. The FBI and the NSA had earlier said that the hacking was intended to undermine the U.S. democratic process, hurt Hillary Clinton's chances of winning the 2016 election and help elect Trump. Comey, Conaway suggested, had inferred that Russia wanted Trump to win simply because it had worked to keep her from becoming president. Boom! Roasted! Except that, as Comey quickly pointed out, there were only two viable candidates. Meaning that if Russia wanted one to lose, it, by default, wanted the other one to win. Here's a look at Conaway after that Comey answer:
* The media: Comey doesn't seem to think much of us. He repeatedly noted that he sees incorrect reporting about classified information all the time in the media — and chooses not to correct it. Not great. For us.
* Questions that aren't really questions: This hearing was absolutely lousy with these sorts of questions — from members on both sides of the aisle. One example from an unnamed member (mostly because I can't remember who it was): “You are aware that Paul Manafort was a member of Donald Trump's senior campaign staff? And that Manafort has ties to Ukraine? Can you confirm Mr. Manafort is a target of the FBI investigation?”
I mean. Come on.