This article originally appeared on VICE US
If there was any bombshell in FBI Director James Comey's testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, it was this: Comey thinks the president of the United States is a liar.
"I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting," Comey said when asked about why he kept notes on conversations with Donald Trump, a practice he didn't follow with Barack Obama or any other senior government official. "Those were lies, plain and simple," he said of the administration's comments about how the FBI was disorganized and demoralized under Comey's leadership.
That presents an obvious problem for the White House. This problem has nothing to do with legal issues that might lead eventually, somehow, to Trump's impeachment, an event that doesn't seem particularly close to happening. But a figure as public and generally respected as Comey throwing around the L-word like that is politically damaging to say the least, not to mention a personal affront to Trump—a man who doesn't have a history of letting affronts go without losing his cool.
Add that to Comey's (now public) accusation that Trump pressured him to lay off disgraced former national security adviser Mike Flynn and also asked Comey for his "loyalty," and you have a pretty damaging set of stories for the president.
So how is the administration going to strike back?
In a heretofore unseen act of restraint on his part, Trump hasn't yet tweeted about Comey's statements. But an independent pro-Trump group had cut an attack ad against the former lawman even before he appeared before Congress. The ad accused Comey of being a "just another DC insider" who cared more about election meddling than terror attacks, and brought up his one bit of inaccurate testimony in a previous congressional hearing:
Generally speaking, though, few Republicans seem to have the stomach to go after Comey like that. Senators from both parties on Thursday repeatedly praised the temperament and record of the man the president fired, and Comey's assertion that Trump was untrustworthy remarkably went unchallenged. White House aides are also reportedly nervous about attacking the former director's credibility, instead leaving it up to the Republican National Committee.
The problem is, the RNC also seems committed to embracing some of Comey's testimony. For instance, he confirmed Trump's claim that Comey had told Trump repeatedly the president himself wasn't under investigation, and said that Trump didn't tell him directly to drop any investigation. "This guy isn't credible" isn't a narrative that meshes naturally with "this guy's testimony absolves Trump."
Yet this confusing one-two punch was repeated by Trump's outside lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, who in a statement following the hearing emphasized Comey's confirmation that Trump had not been under investigation, then said that Trump "never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone." Kasowitz also said Trump didn't ask for loyalty, and criticized Comey for telling his friend to leak accounts of the conversations he had with the president.
At the hearing, Republican senators took a different tack. They accepted Comey's account of Trump telling the then FBI director that "I hope you can see your way clear to letting.... Flynn go." But, Idaho Republican James Risch argued, that really didn't count as an order, right? ("I took it as a direction," replied Comey.)
Other Trump allies made similar arguments about Trump's words not being technically an attempt to block an investigation into his buddies. His demand for loyalty from Comey and subsequent "hope" was a "normal New York City conversation," said New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. "The president is new at this," was House Speaker Paul Ryan's excuse for Trump.
Hillary Clinton used the same deflect-and-distract playbook during the 2016 campaign, lashing out at Wikileaks when her campaign's hacked emails resulted in the content of her speeches to Goldman Sachs being made public. The excuse that Trump's conduct was fine because it wasn't illegal similarly recalled Clinton's claim that she did "nothing wrong" when she used a private email server as secretary of state.
When you're responding to a scandal by blaming the messenger, you're in trouble. When your argument is "my conduct wasn't technically against the law, probably," you're in a lot more trouble. But it looks like Trump and the Republicans standing behind him are going to be making those pathetic arguments for a long while.
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