The hashtag #ComeyDay pretty much summed it up: the former FBI director’s testimony in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee on his personal interactions with President Trump and his running of the federal investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians during the 2016 presidential election was the talk of the town in Washington. Nothing else mattered—not the debt ceiling, not the Senate debate on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, or the sanctions bills on Russia that several congressional committees are trying to reconcile. It was all about James Comey, his memos and his personal relationship with a president who clearly didn’t get along with his FBI director from the start.
The nearly three-hour testimony is a treasure trove of gold nuggets for reporters, bloggers and law professors, all of whom have been debating for months on what it really means to obstruct justice. The Trump administration, in Comey’s words, deceived the American people about why he was ultimately dismissed from his job. There was the reference from Comey that he believed that Trump and his aides “defamed” his reputation for being a poor leader of the FBI and insulted the men and women of the bureau for having low morale. In Comey’s opinion, he was fired not because of his acumen for the job or the bureau’s overall performance, but because he was pursuing an investigation that President Trump wanted dropped. “I take the president at his word that I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” Comey told the committee. “Something about the way I was conducting it, the president felt created pressure on him that he wanted to relieve.”
There will be a lot of speculation in Washington over the days and weeks ahead as to how impactful James Comey’s testimony is to the wider special-counsel probe and how damaging it may to the president. It’s always dangerous to speculate during a fast-moving investigation, but it’s very hard to see Comey’s appearance Thursday as anything but a big political nightmare for President Trump (notwithstanding Marc Kasowitz’s statement). Congressional Republicans will have their hair on fire for the next week or so, ducking reporters in the hallways, attempting to escape the avalanche of Trump queries that have already tainted their legislative agenda.
The biggest impact of Comey’s testimony, however, may be on the Democratic Party.
We all understand that Democrats loathe the Trump administration and everything that it stands for. Democratic lawmakers, from the most rabid progressive to the more traditional left-of-center Chuck Schumer, consider the president to be an unhinged child without a parent, left to his own devices, kicking and screaming, and not understanding what is and isn’t appropriate. Democrats have pounded Trump as a neophyte who doesn’t give a damn about the restrictions embedded in the Constitution, a man who believes that the entire federal government—even the impartial investigators of the FBI—answer to his beck and call.
But the Democrats as a caucus haven’t yet been willing to embrace the ultimate weapon: impeachment. Much of this is because Republicans control Congress and the Democratic minority doesn’t want to expend political capital on something that, in the end, won’t result in anything but wasted time. Part of it is a concern in Democratic circles that pushing Trump and Russia all the time will turn off the voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, which the party needs in order to recapture the House majority in 2018. Even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the bogeywoman of the left that Republican operatives and politicians across the country love to pick on, doesn’t think that impeaching Trump is a smart play.
Comey’s testimony, however, may change the balance of power within the Democratic Party towards figures like Rep. Al Green, who are either talking about impeachment or in the process of drafting articles of impeachment. If the news becomes even more terrible for the White House and lawmakers from the left continue to push impeachment as an option—particularly if the congressional committees or the special counsel finds more information that reinforces an obstruction of justice charge—Democratic leaders may find it politically difficult to act as the responsible adults. Right now, Pelosi has succeeded in quarantining the impeachment effort, but it’s not inconceivable that more Democrats will jump on the impeachment bandwagon if it’s advantageous to do so.
Such a scenario would put long-time lawmakers like Pelosi and Steny Hoyer in an impossible bind: get out of the way and risk enabling an impeachment process that is highly unlikely to succeed, or restrain the liberal fire breathers in the caucus and be vulnerable to a 2018 primary.
Today, the Republicans are scrambling. Tomorrow, the Democrats may be as well.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
Image: FBI Director James Comey—joined by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates—addresses members of the media during a press briefing held June 13, 2016 at FBI Headquarters. Flickr / Federal Bureau of Investigations