Christmas fell on June 8 this year, at least as far as the news media is concerned.
On Thursday morning, the country’s attention was fixated on live televised testimony by former FBI director James Comey before the U.S. Senate’s Intelligence Committee regarding his interactions with, and subsequent firing by, President Trump.
With talk of obstruction of justice and impeachment in the air, Comey’s testimony over several hours didn’t quite deliver a bombshell, smoking gun, or any such figurative coup-de-grace — but it was still sensational.
Most notably, Comey claimed Trump fired him in an effort to impede the FBI investigation of former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, who was forced to resign in February after revelations he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian officials before Trump’s inauguration.
In addition, Comey accused Trump of trying to deceive the American public about his reasons for firing Comey on May 9.
At the time, Trump and his representatives asserted that Comey was fired because the FBI had fallen into disarray under his leadership — statements Comey characterized as “lies, plain and simple” during his testimony to top lawmakers this week, blasting this attempt “to defame me.”
While Comey’s testimony is hardly sufficient to justify articles of impeachment by itself, it sets the stage for further inquiries, which might plausibly uncover grounds for impeachment — depending on various ongoing investigations.
During his public testimony, Comey refused to venture an opinion about whether any members of Trump’s team actively colluded with foreign powers during the 2016 election. He also demurred when asked if his firing represented an attempted obstruction of justice by Trump.
However, these questions were deferred to a second closed-door session of the same committee to be held Thursday afternoon.
The nation’s leading newspapers, which have made no secret of their opposition to the Trump administration, had a field day with Comey’s testimony, live-streaming the public hearing on their Web sites and providing blow-by-blow recaps with live blogs.
The Web sites of The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal gave the hearings banner headline treatment, although they managed to restrain themselves from the blaring “all caps” reserved for truly pivotal events.
Of course, the news media has played a large role in events to date, giving the whole political scandal a postmodern gloss.
The NYT received special attention during the hearings.
In one remarkable revelation, Comey admitted he leaked his personal memos summarizing his conversations with Trump to the newspaper, via a Columbia University law professor, in hopes they would prompt the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the affair.
On that note, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl) gave the press a backhanded compliment while asking about leaks, complaining he has learned “more from the newspapers” than congressional hearings to date.
Still, the news media didn’t exactly come out of the hearings smelling like a rose.
Comey also agreed that one article published by the NYT in February, which accused Trump associates of secret contacts with Russian officials based on classified leaks about the investigation, was “in the main… not true.” Comey noted: “The challenge, and I’m not picking on reporters about writing stories about classified information, is the people talking about it often don’t really know what’s going on and those of us who actually know what’s going on are not talking about it.”
No surprise: The NYT’s chief rivals – read The Washington Post – were quick to highlight the error.
In another statement, Comey, while not presenting factual criticism, didn’t portray members of the journalistic profession in the most dignified light, doubtless reflecting the feelings of officials and not a few ordinary Americans.
When asked why he used an intermediary to deliver his memos to the press, rather than talking to journalists directly, Comey said he “worried it would be like feeding seagulls at the beach.”
Infelicitous comparisons to Coney Island wildlife aside, Comey’s testimony was a gift to newspapers as they struggle to prove their continued relevance in a fast-changing media landscape. Editors are doubtless rubbing their hands in anticipation of further revelations.
Left for future inquiries: Was Trump secretly recording his meetings with Comey, leaving evidence that might help adjudicate the “he said-he said” nature of the accusations? Stay tuned!