When former FBI Director James Comey appears before Congress on Thursday, he will reveal painful truths about the pressures President Donald Trump put on him. He will add explosive chapters to the ongoing saga of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. He may very well end up raising questions about Trump’s temperament.
But one thing he’s unlikely to do, even the president’s critics concede, is expedite Trump’s demise.
“Watergate did not bring Richard Nixon down overnight,” said Brian Fallon, Hillary Clinton’s press secretary during the 2016 campaign. “While this scandal feels like it’s playing out at lightning speed, it is still going to take months to fully get to the bottom of things. The Comey hearing may well be an iconic moment, but it won’t be the ballgame.”
Among many impassioned critics of the president, a belief persists that a single act of sheer stupidity or controversy or embarrassment will undo Trump. It’s a theory that extends back to Trump’s formal entrance into electoral politics, when he descended his gilded escalator and called a subset of Mexicans “rapists.” It regained life regularly during the campaign and has followed him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where each revelation of murky ethics and professional malfeasance prompts another round of “surely this will do him in” chatter.
And yet, Trump remains ― wounded professionally but there nonetheless.
His perseverance is, perhaps, his greatest political strength, continually befuddling opponents. Alex Conant, who served as the primary spokesman for the presidential campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), recalled watching Trump disparage Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for becoming a prisoner of war during Vietnam and suggest that Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle was responsible for her tough debate questioning. Conant assumed the end was near for Trump after those comments.
“I was wrong,” Conant conceded. “He is not held to the same standard as other politicians because people don’t look at him as a politician. They look at him as a celebrity and businessman.”
The Comey hearing has raised a familiar pattern of speculation and ― in some corners ― wishful thinking. It’s been treated as a must-watch affair, fit for cable news countdown clocks, and hailed as the facilitating moment of Trump’s downfall. And for good reason. Comey’s testimony to the Senate intelligence committee will confirm that Trump demanded personal loyalty and that Comey shelve investigations. On top of that, Comey has a history of using dramatic testimony to cripple administrations.
But those who have tried to take down Trump caution against expecting the former FBI director to deliver the proverbial “kill shot.”
Part of that is because much of what Comey is set to say has been digested by the public before. Trump already told NBC’s Lester Holt that he fired Comey to get out from underneath the Russia investigation ― an admission of obstruction of justice whose fleeting shock value was lampooned on “Saturday Night Live.” On top of that, it was already reported that the president pressured Comey to pledge loyalty, and that Comey felt uncomfortable being left alone with Trump, and that Trump encouraged him to end inquiries into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
“The only thing missing is we haven’t heard Comey saying these things out loud,” said Rory Cooper, a longtime GOP operative and vocal Trump critic. “We will have video of it but that is already out.”
But the main reason Trump will survive is that Republicans, who control the levers of power, continue to feel a commitment to ensuring so. The immediate reaction to Comey’s written testimony, which was released in advance on Wednesday, had some of the party’s intellectuals decrying an abuse of power and an obstruction of justice. But others rushed to claim it a nothing-burger.
There was less division within the universe of elected officials, who largely rushed to defend Trump from Comey’s story. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) argued that it had confirmed Trump’s insistence that he was never under investigation. Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) pleaded that all it showed was Trump’s every-man ignorance of how Washington’s legal constructs work. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) practically yawned.
“[F]rom what I’ve been briefed on, it sounds like it’s much of what’s already been reported, but it’s fairly rich in detail and color,” Ryan told MSNBC. “But the substance seems to me, from what I’ve understood, similar to what we’ve already been hearing.”
If this is, indeed, how the Republican Party will embrace the Comey news, then Trump can rest comfortably. Not just because the process of impeachment (itself a pipe dream, many Democrats concede) is a political process. But because it illustrates that he still has sway over the party’s voters, still strikes fear in the heart of its elected officials, and still has the capacity to persist through scandal, even in his diminished state.
“Sitting around and waiting for one moment to derail his presidency is probably going to result in a long wait,” said Cooper. “It has been pretty clear that Trump can exhibit almost any behavior and not really change the fact that he’s at 37 percent [approval rating].”