Thursday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing was riveting in its own right. But at times, James B. Comey’s grilling on the stand recalled nothing so much as a sexual misconduct trial, with the former FBI director playing the role of barely believed plaintiff. The proceedings brought to mind the patronizing, painful back-and-forth that victims have been conditioned to expect should they dare lodge a complaint about harassment or assault. From the exhaustive rehashing of every encounter between the president and the former FBI director to the performative disbelief of many of the questioning senators, the uncomfortable parallels were hard to ignore.
Asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), perhaps trying to be understanding: “You’re big. You’re strong. . . . Why didn’t you stop and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong?’ ”
Then Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): “At the time, did you say anything to the president about — ‘That is not an appropriate request,’ or did you tell the White House counsel, ‘That is not an appropriate request, someone needs to go tell the president that he can’t do these things’?”
There was Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.): “You said . . . ‘I don’t want to be in the room with him alone again,’ but you continued to talk to him on the phone. . . . Why didn’t you say, ‘I’m not taking that call’?”
And Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), ostensibly trying to be helpful: “A lot of this comes down to, who should we believe? Do you want to say anything as to why we should believe you?”
The only thing missing was a question about what the FBI director had been wearing at the time.
Just as in many of the most public sexual-assault proceedings — think Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas, or even the Bill Cosby trial underway in suburban Philadelphia — we have an alleged perpetrator with an established power structure at his disposal and an accuser who is asked to explain why he didn’t do more to stop things from happening. And Comey’s answers mimic the confusion and guilt that often mark victims’ responses to such situations. “I was so uneasy.” “I was so stunned.” “Maybe if I did it again, I would do better.”
That said, Comey is a 6 -foot- 8 man in healthy middle age, not a female college student or Fox News employee fighting to keep her career on track — this situation was nowhere near as perilous as that faced by most victims of unwanted sexual advances. The FBI director may have implored Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to leave him alone with President Trump, but it wasn’t because he feared for his safety. Trump might have asked Comey to compromise his professional principles over the course of a Green Room dinner; he was at little risk of being, say, “grabbed by the p---y.” Comey was fired for not acceding to his boss’s demands, but that is not at all the same as having his bodily autonomy stripped away. And the former FBI director, a practiced speaker and seasoned prosecutor in his own right, was given the opportunity to defend and even vindicate himself in court — something most victims of sexual misconduct will never get.
The deeper question here, however, is why we’re willing to extend our forbearance to a figure such as Comey but not to so many of the survivors of abuse around us. Sympathetic observers of this hearing rushed to say that the lines of inquiry were nonsensical and that Comey’s explanations sounded credible — the way any person might react in real time. Why do questions like these senators’ strike us as insulting and ridiculous in this case but par for the course in others?
Perhaps it’s because taking down a not-so-sympathetic president feels more palatable than potentially ruining a promising young athlete’s career. Maybe it’s that Comey, respectable government official and folksy, stand-up guy, is a more easily trusted figure than a nervous-seeming temp worker.
Comey humbly admitted that he wasn’t “Captain Courageous” in his dealings with President Trump, yet he still got the benefit of the doubt. Shouldn’t others who tell their stories in even more difficult circumstances be given the same?