In his own bumbling, befuddled, you-kids-get-off-my-lawn way, Sen. John McCain asked one of the best questions Thursday near the end of the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with James Comey: What exactly did the president of the United States mean, the last time he spoke to the director of the FBI, when he talked about “that thing” they had between them?
“I’d like to know what ‘that thing’ is,” said McCain, whose earlier comments and questions were nearly all incomprehensible.
In Sicilian Mafia terms, “our thing” is the literal translation of “Cosa Nostra.” Throughout Comey’s testimony and in his written statement, “that thing” comes across as a tense, often cryptic “ask” between a powerful thug and a potential supplicant. You can see Don Corleone requesting a favor, even if he doesn’t spell it out in great detail.
With Donald Trump, Comey is struggling. He considers the president to be a liar and doesn’t trust him. He’s creeped out that Trump wants to be alone with him, at a dinner where Comey’s integrity is on the plate. He’s ashamed that he doesn’t have the guts to call out Trump for the sordid squeeze the president is putting on him.
The new president is a crackpot. He thinks he has a finite amount of bodily fluids, a set reserve of energy; he eats bad food, gets no sleep, is paranoid, obsessed with what people on television are saying about him. And this bizarre, unstable man is sitting in the Oval Office largely because of James Comey.
Comey will have to live the rest of his life knowing that he altered the course of the world, essentially determining the outcome of last year’s presidential election with his late public statements casting doubt on Hillary Clinton. And still, he made another mark for posterity Thursday.
Awful things happen so quickly with the Trump administration that we tend to forget the earlier awfulness. A week ago, the president stunned all of Europe by refusing to affirm U.S. support for the central tenet of an alliance that has kept the peace for 75 years.
A few days after that, he stunned all of the planet when he announced that the United States would no longer be a force for good on climate change – that we would join the failed state of Syria in going rogue on the Paris accord.
On Wednesday, his top intelligence officials stonewalled a congressional inquiry, refusing to answer questions on whether the president asked them to intervene in an FBI investigation regarding Russia.
But let’s not forget at least one thing: Trump has repeatedly called the extraordinary crime of Russia interfering with the U.S. election a hoax and fake news.
“There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever: The Russians interfered in our election,” Comey said. “It’s not a close call. That happened. That’s about as unfake as you can possibly get. And it is very, very serious.”
Several times, Comey returned to this central, historic threat. The Russian government, he said, “tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is big deal. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America.”
What’s more, it’s an ongoing assault, as Comey said. And yet the commander in chief refuses to defend us.
Yes, it’s riveting stuff that the former top cop in the country called out Trump for “lies, plain and simple.” And it’s equally riveting, in its sordid way, that the credibility-free Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders was compelled to state, “I can definitely say that the president is not a liar.”
But we need to step away from the quick hits of the news cycle and dwell on the big picture. Trump took an oath to defend the United States. The nation is under assault by Russian hackers, growing more sophisticated by the day. And the president won’t even acknowledge the threat.
So, where to next? Those hoping for an obstruction-of-justice indictment can keep hoping. Republican enablers dwelled on Trump’s alleged words to Comey regarding the troubles of the former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn: “I hope you can let this go.” Hope, they said, is not a direct order. Well, yes, and a mobster can “hope” this nice little business you got here doesn’t get torched.
I liked the comparison, from Sen. Angus King, to the words of King Henry II in 1170 regarding Thomas Becket: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Shortly thereafter, Becket’s skull was smashed by Henry’s knights in Canterbury Cathedral.
As for impeachment, people forget that it’s a political act. Trump’s approval will have to become a very serious threat to Republican control of Congress before any profiles in courage emerge from the red team.
We’re lucky to have a robust and dogged former G-man as a special counsel, posing real peril for the Russian stooges who helped put this president in office. The counsel, Robert Mueller, is on Trump’s trail in large part because of some clever leaking by Comey. In the end, the Boy Scout may still get the better of the bully who fired him.