As they watched Director James Comey testify that the FBI was undertaking a counterintelligence investigation into the president of the United States, an odd mix of emotions crept up on those who endeavored to deny Donald Trump the presidency.
There was a sense of vindication, for all the warnings they had issued prior to the election about Trump’s ties to Russia. But there was also frustration, primarily that Comey took so long to make a public declaration despite doing so quickly when it came to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
“I think the Justice Department needs to give this a close look, which apparently the [inspector general] is doing, and figure out what rules and procedures need to be put in place so it never happens again,” said Robby Mook, Clinton’s presidential campaign manager.
Monday’s testimony by Comey was heavy on drama and light on details. But those details were explosive. The FBI director confirmed the investigation into ties between Trump and Russia, revealed that it had started in July and admitted that Russian interests were indeed trying to get Trump elected.
For the central players of the 2016 campaign, the testimony reopened old wounds. Brian Fallon, Clinton’s campaign press secretary, called it “reassuring” to see Russia’s involvement be treated with the severity the campaign insisted it deserved. But, like Mook, he couldn’t get beyond the apparent double standard. “There were two active investigations involving presidential candidates last year, and he only told the voters about one,” Fallon said.
For Comey, the hearing was something else entirely: another chapter in his complicated, dramatically shifting standing within D.C. political circles. The FBI director is known for his stoicism and sense of fairness that has, for critics, taken on an air of pomposity and self-aggrandizement. His reputation suffered during the campaign. He alienated Trump supporters by declining to press charges over Clinton’s email use while alienating Clinton supporters for even discussing the matter. He then infuriated those Clinton supporters once more by revealing the discovery of additional emails just 10 days before the election, only to announce a week later that nothing new had been found.
I think the Justice Department needs to give this a close look, which apparently the [inspector general] is doing, and figure out what rules and procedures need to be put in place so it never happens again. Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign manager
Democratic leadership and legal officials were incensed by his conduct. Then-Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wrote a blistering letter accusing Comey of sitting on salacious material tying Trump to Russia and potentially violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits electioneering by federal officials.
That Comey refused to confirm an investigation into Trump was taking place even as evidence of Russian connections mounted only raised the level of pique. That he explained his reticence on Monday as being the byproduct of care for the “sensitivity of the matter” ― seemingly the inverse of his reasoning for discussing Clinton’s emails ― didn’t mollify those critics.
Reid, according to a source close to him, felt “vindicated” watching Comey but also “frustrated as to why Comey didn’t think the American people deserved to know this before the election.”
But despite their reservations, Democrats also recognize that Comey ― at least for the time being ― remains in his post (he’s in the midst of a 10-year term that began in September 2013) and that post is one of the few institutional checks that can be applied on the administration. Monday’s hearing showed that some lawmakers were willing to turn pages so long as they view the FBI director as acting as a responsible bulwark.
“He is who we have to work with,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), a member of the intelligence committee. “I hope and believe that he’ll work in a professional manner, that there will be no partisan considerations. Of course, Democrats across the country and many Americans who were not part of the Democratic Party were frustrated by how events went down during the presidential campaign. But, if you noticed yesterday, I don’t think there was a single question asked about that issue.”
“It’s only natural for us to want to go back and relive the elections,” said Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.). “But that’s not going to happen. It’s about moving forward in the future. I think my Republican colleagues said it best when they said it happened to Democrats this time, it may very well happen to Republicans in the future, and that’s why it’s important to seek the truth.”
The hearing also showed that Comey recognizes that he has a reputation to rebuild as well. Unlike his handling of the Clinton email saga ― when, feeling obligated to keep Congress abreast on a potential development in the investigation, he sent a letter that tossed the news cycle into chaos days ahead of the election ― this time around he didn’t promise lawmakers ongoing updates on the status of the Russian probe.
And yet skepticism of Comey among Democrats remains, even if Democrats recognize that he may be their best asset against Trump. The cost of his selective disclosure was, in their minds, the presidency and all of the ramifications that winning that office entails. Coming out months later to acknowledge that yes, both candidates were under investigation during the campaign, did not repair Comey’s reputation, it raised further questions.
“I think for everybody who saw it yesterday or watched it last night, the hardest thing for people to try and deal with is the issue of, you went out 10 days before the election with this stuff on Hillary and yet ― what was it, July? ― you were informed that espionage and potential treason was going on and everybody was mum on that,” said Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-Va.) in an interview with The Huffington Post. “They do not understand how you can go out on this one issue, which turned out to be absolutely nothing, and on the other hand you have a foreign government acting treasonous with espionage potentially going on and nobody says a word about it.”
With reporting by Laura Barron-Lopez