There are a lot of ways to lie. That was the upshot from Thursday’s dramatic Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, where former FBI Director James Comey spent the better part of three hours recounting the latest chapter in the 1960s political thriller that is our ongoing national nightmare. The hearing uncovered new ground when Comey described President Donald Trump’s efforts to obstruct the Michael Flynn investigation and implied that there was a greater scope to the underlying Russia investigation than previously thought. It also exhibited the many flavors of falsehoods.
The tutorial began the day before the hearing, when the Intelligence Committee prematurely released Director Comey’s written testimony. That seven-page submission detailed presidential intimidation in a dramatic first-person chronology of dinners and telephone calls between a wooing President Trump and a reluctant Comey. The testimony described a series of efforts by Trump as both president-elect and president to pressure the then FBI Director into engaging in deceit in its subtlest form—lying by omission. There was Trump’s proclamation that “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” There was the menacing implication in their Oval Office solo meeting: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” And there were Trump’s repeated requests to “lift the cloud” hanging over him. All of which, of course, were the clumsy, malicious instructions to bury a criminal investigation, and thereby lie to the American people, by a clumsy, malicious man.
The second form came in the opening minutes of Comey’s oral testimony, when the ex-Director told the packed committee room that the president’s “shifting explanations” for his firing “confused” him. Not only that, but:
although the law required no reason at all to fire an FBI director, the administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple. And I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them, and I’m so sorry that the American people were told them.
Here was the direct lie. President Trump and his administration had intentionally misrepresented—indeed defamed!—Comey, the federal police force he ran, and their actions.
He wasn’t close to finished. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia—the Ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee—began his questioning at the top of the hearing with the obvious question about Comey’s insinuation-laden written testimony. Comey’s statement described a January 6th meeting with President-Elect Trump without detailing any of Trump’s statements or conduct but nevertheless took the time to explain that, “I felt compelled to document my first conversation with the President-Elect in a memo. To ensure accuracy, I began to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting. Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward.” Then: “This had not been my practice in the past,” his statement dripping with suggestion. So, Warner naturally inquired: “What was it about that meeting that led you to determine that you needed to start putting down a written record?” Yes, what indeed? Comey feigned contemplation and then leveled the jaw-dropper of the day:
A combination of things. I think the circumstances, the subject matter, and the person I was interacting with. Circumstances, first, I was alone with the president of the United States, or the president-elect, soon to be president. The subject matter I was talking about matters that touch on the FBI’s core responsibility, and that relate to the president, president-elect personally, and then the nature of the person. I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it important to document.
The nature of the person. The president of the United States is a liar. And here is the third version. When the lies become so thick and pervasive that they inhabit their creator, turning a lie-teller into a liar.
It’s worth mentioning here that Comey gave no indication his worry was based on the contents of that January 6th meeting. No one goes into a meeting with a person for the first time and comes out minutes later concerned that they are such an incorrigible liar that every word they utter must be noted for protection. No, Comey was merely admitting something that Congress and the media and polite society refuse to acknowledge when the truth impedes on bipartisan niceties—that anyone with half a brain who spent a day following this president knows that, at his core, he is liar first and before all.
Next came the fourth type of falsehood, courtesy of Senator Jim Risch of Idaho—the self-lie:
RISCH: …[Trump] did not direct you to let it go?
COMEY: Not in his words, no.
RISCH: He did not order you to let it go?
COMEY: Again, those words are not an order.
RISCH: He said, I hope. Now, like me, you probably did hundreds of cases, maybe thousands of cases, charging people with criminal offenses and, of course, you have knowledge of the thousands of cases out there where people have been charged. Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where they said or thought they hoped for an outcome?
COMEY: I don’t know well enough to answer. The reason I keep saying his words is I took it as a direction.
COMEY: I mean, this is a president of the United States with me alone saying I hope this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do. I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.
RISCH: You may have taken it as a direction but that’s not what he said.
RISCH: He said, I hope.
COMEY: Those are his exact words, correct.
RISCH: You don’t know of anyone ever being charged for hoping something, is that a fair statement?
COMEY: I don’t as I sit here.
RISCH: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Well then! The former-prosecutor-turned-Senator surely knows better than to rest his case on out-of-context semantics, but his ardent need to defend the president got in the way (Senator Risch also has a B.S. in Forestry, although Thursday he seemed to have lost the forest for a single, inconsequential tree). Here is under-oath testimony from the only other participant to that conversation—the just-fired Republican former FBI Director, no less—saying that he understood the content and context of the statement to be “a direction.” And all Jim Risch can take from it, with a bucket over his head and his fingers in his ears, is a hope.
Comey himself delivered the next lie varietal—a clever, knowing fib that underscored the truth, much in the way art does. It came moments after Senator Risch had finished dreamily creating his own happier world to live in, when Senator Dianne Feinstein of California asked Comey straight up: “Why do you believe you were fired?” He responded:
I take the president at his word, that I was fired because of the Russia investigation. Something about the way I was conducting it, the president felt created pressure on him that he wanted to relieve. Again, I didn’t know that at the time. I watched his interview. I read the press accounts of his conversations. I take him at his word there. Look, I could be wrong. Maybe he’s saying something that’s not true. I take him at his word, at least based on what I know now.
The thrice-uttered falsehood there, of course, is Comey’s insistence that he takes Trump at his word. Why would someone who only moments ago admitted that he wrote down every interaction he had with Trump because he was so concerned that Trump would later lie about those interactions suddenly take the man “at his word?” He wouldn’t. Except that Comey was deftly using Trump’s boastful, childish preening during his NBC News interview with Lester Holt against him. In that interview, Trump admitted that he fired Comey because of “this Russian thing,” while contradicting his administration’s prior explanations. In a hearing full of truth-telling to correct Trump’s lies, Comey decided to lie to underscore Trump’s damning truth.
Finally, after it was all over, the president had his say. The next day he resorted to his favorite type of untruth—the head spinning practice of both denying an allegation’s veracity and its potency. For instance, after Flynn resigned, Trump was asked whether he told his former National Security Director to speak with the Russians during the transition. “…It certainly would have been OK with me if he did it. I would have directed him to do it if I thought he wasn’t doing it,” Trump said at the time. “I didn’t direct him but I would have directed him because that’s his job.” Trump has a long history of muddying the waters in this way. He uses the denial to buy time while simultaneously undermining the salience of the alleged conduct. He was at it again after the Comey spectacle, denying that he had demanded Comey drop the Flynn investigation: “I didn’t say that. And there’d be nothing wrong if I did say it, according to everybody I’ve read today, but I did not say that.” And Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.
With that, Washington returned to business as unusual. Trump was still the president of the United States, where the contradictory is now consistency. And yet, Thursday’s Intelligence Committee hearing perhaps released more than could be put back in the bottle. It suggested that our justice and intelligence systems might still be intact though the political one is crumbling, and that what we once took for granted may yet still hold. That lies are lies are lies are lies that cannot be killed or swept aside.