WASHINGTON ― Summer theater means different things in different parts of America. In the suburbs, it’s dinner theater. In New York, it’s Shakespeare in the Park. In New England, it’s summer stock.
In Washington, it’s gavel-to-gavel investigative hearings on Capitol Hill.
After a series of low-level tryouts, “Trump” opened big Thursday on D.C.’s version of Broadway ― a packed Senate hearing room ― with the earnest but venomous testimony of the former FBI director, James Comey.
Within minutes of being sworn in, he’d called the man who fired him, President Donald Trump, a congenital liar; accused the president of trying to pressure him into shutting down probes into possible campaign collusion with Russia; and hinted that, while Trump was not originally an investigative target, he might end up being one, if for no other reason than he may be obstructing justice.
The semicircle of senators in the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing room were largely in the background, framing the scene like the kicking chorus line in a boffo opening number.
They asked soft, obvious, or beside-the-point questions of a literally towering figure (he stands 6 foot 8), who is self-righteous and too clever for his own good, but who could and did easily make them look foolish when they meekly tried to nail him.
Meanwhile, across town, an uncharacteristically subdued Trump spoke to a roomful of Christian political conservatives, while keeping fingers away (for a few minutes) from his Twitter account. Without mentioning Comey, Russia, Senate hearings or special counsels, the president declared that he would fight and always win, and that America’s future was great.
No one expects this meek silence to continue, no matter how gravely Trump’s New York lawyer and friend, Marc Kasowitz, admonishes him.
No, this was just the opening scene of a many-act play that will unfold over coming months or even years, and that is now a permanent feature of the Trump years, however long they last.
It’s the way of Washington now.
In the Clinton years, a real estate controversy called Whitewater morphed into the Lewinsky scandal, and then metastasized into an impeachment and trial. The whole process consumed seven years, during which Bill Clinton won election and re-election.
This time, there are five investigations underway about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, and whether Trump or what he calls his “satellites” knew about or colluded with efforts that U.S. intelligence officials have traced directly to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Probes are being conducted by the FBI; the larger intelligence “community,” including the National Security Agency; the Senate Intelligence Committee; the House Intelligence Committee; the House Oversight Committee, and, of course the new special counsel, jut-jawed Robert Mueller.
All of these entities have subpoena power, or can get it through others, and all have long and overlapping lists of witnesses they want to investigate in private and in public.
They can and ultimately will, at the end of the play, answer the fateful question, one of the most serious that can be asked here: Did a foreign power, a malevolent and hostile one at that, have witting and willing partners in Trump or his circle?
And there are the other urgent final questions in any Washington drama: Did the president try to cover up what he and others knew and did, and did he obstruct justice in a way that could get him impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate?
Trump and Comey together insured this production would go big-time because of mutual distrust.
On Jan. 6 in Trump Tower, the then-FBI director stayed behind after a security briefing to warn the president-elect about the existence of a soon-to-be published FBI source memo with “salacious” but uncorroborated accusations about him. Comey wanted to be candid and helpful, and not come off as a “J. Edgar Hoover” clone threatening others, he testified.
Trump furiously denied the accusations in the FBI source’s memo ― and almost certainly immediately concluded that Comey was a serious threat. Comey, for his part, said he went into that meeting knowing that he had to memorialize it afterward, because of what he already knew about Trump’s character.
That memo-writing habit helped Comey make the opening act such a smash hit. He’s not a choir boy, though he would like to meet that standard, even if playing bureaucratic hardball is the only way to do it.
He disclosed in the hearing that he had leaked word of Trump’s pressuring him so that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would have no choice but to appoint a special counsel to take over. Mission accomplished.
But Comey is only the first of many potential antagonists likely to appear. Other potential main characters include:
Sessions, who recused himself from the Russia probe because of his own contacts with the Putin crowd, and who, in doing so, earned Trump’s enmity and suspicions. Does Sessions leave, and if so, what will he then say?
Former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, a Putin pal and Russophile whom everyone but Trump distrusted, and whose financial dealings may make him vulnerable.
The “Satellites.” These are the people Trump views as his aides, advisers and hangers-on. They are people he depends on, but from whom he keeps legal and functional distance. It’s the operating method of spies and the mob. As Comey vividly explained Thursday, if you “turn over rocks” in an FBI or other investigation, you may find that people have committed crimes unrelated to the main issue at hand, in this case Russia collusion. These perps can then be “flipped and squeezed” to tell what they know.
Putin. He has denied all, and recently in Moscow somehow managed to work conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination into his answer. The world troll of democracy is eager to play in the American media, and is enjoying his role as defender of due process for his beleaguered comrade in authoritarian arms, Trump.
Republicans. GOP members of the Senate Intelligence Committee for the most part went meekly before Comey. They didn’t attack him much, and they did not defend Trump much, either. Will that change, in one direction or the other, and if so, when? We’ve got months to go to get a real answer – perhaps even until after the 2018 midterm elections.