TRY to follow each new allegation about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and it is easy to feel like a child in a fairy tale, lost in the wild woods. Alas, a dramatic hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8th, involving the sacked FBI director James Comey, risked leaving Americans feeling further from the sunlight than ever, and deeper in a tangled labyrinth of thickets, snares and false trails.
The players in the Senate hearing room are not to blame. Mr Comey was at once grave but emotional in a very human way, scrupulously non-partisan and often self-deprecating—the very model of a witness. Many of the senators quizzing him, notably the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, Richard Burr of North Carolina and the panel’s top Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia, asked crisp, relevant questions with little trace of partisan bias. If every hearing on Capitol Hill was as impressive, Congress would see its approval ratings soar (mathematically, they can hardly fall further).
The problem lies outside the committee room. Even by the standards of the present day, Mr Comey levelled astonishing charges at the president who sacked him in May. In written testimony released on June 7th and in his oral answers the former FBI boss confirmed press reports that he had been so alarmed by a series of one-on-one conversations with Mr Trump that he wrote himself instant memorandums and distributed them to other leaders of the FBI. In a rare case of self-outing by a Washington leaker, Mr Comey revealed how, a few days after being fired, he gave the memos to an old friend who teaches law at Columbia University. Mr Comey asked his friend to make sure the press received the memos, he said, with the specific aim of forcing the administration to appoint a special counsel—as indeed later happened, with the naming of another former FBI head, Robert Mueller, to investigate the saga.
One memo described a private dinner on January 27th, a week after Mr Trump took office, at which the president told the FBI chief that “lots of people” wanted his job, asked him if he wanted to keep it and declared: “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
Another, from February 14th, described the disturbing moment that Mr Trump ordered his attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, and other aides from the Oval Office, to leave him alone with the FBI director. This meeting came a day after Mike Flynn, a former general, was fired by Mr Trump as his first national security adviser for lying to the vice-president about his contacts with Russian officials. Then, says Mr Comey, the president told him that Mr Flynn had not done anything wrong in his calls with Russia, and said: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”
Under questioning from senators about why he had taken notes of these conversations when he never transcribed his chats with other presidents, Mr Comey grimly replied that he was concerned about Mr Trump’s character and conduct, adding: “I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it important to document [it].”
That was not the only use of that charged word, “lie”. Mr Comey tore into Mr Trump and his team for “shifting explanations” about why he was fired. The tall, baritone former prosecutor almost choked up as he recalled White House and administration statements that the FBI was in “disarray” under his leadership, and that he was fired for decisions he had taken in 2016, involving probes into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Those were “lies plain and simple,” thundered Mr Comey. He noted that that Mr Trump had offered a separate explanation in a subsequent television interview and in media reports of a conversation with the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office, namely that he fired the FBI chief because of the Russia election-meddling investigation. In Mr Comey’s paraphrase: “something about the way I was conducting it, the president felt created pressure on him that he wanted to relieve.”
Enter Mr Trump’s defenders, who busied themselves erecting fresh briars and thorn-hedges of confusion. The president’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, told a press conference that his client “never told Mr Comey: “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”” Taken literally, that denial is an accusation of perjury, because Mr Comey was speaking under oath to the Senate. Mr Kasowitz further denounced Mr Comey as a leaker of “privileged communications” in a manner that “appears to be entirely retaliatory.” Nonetheless, the lawyer did cite Mr Comey as an authoritative source when the ex-FBI boss told senators that he had, on three separate occasions, told Mr Trump that he was not, individually, the subject of any investigation into Russian election-meddling.
Adding to the tangles, some senior Republicans left Mr Comey’s testimony unchallenged and instead argued that Mr Trump did not know how to talk to FBI bosses, because he is new to politics. Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, said the president is not: “steeped in the long-running protocols” of how to interact with law-enforcement agencies.
Conservative outfits, from the Fox News TV channel to the Republican National Committee, chose to focus on Mr Comey’s statements chiding Loretta Lynch, Barack Obama’s final attorney-general, for asking him to downplay the importance of his election-year probe into Hillary Clinton’s emails, by calling it a “matter” rather than an “investigation.”
But even as watching Americans struggled in the brambles of division, with Republicans and Democrats seemingly trapped in partisan positions, sharp-eyed spectators will have noticed something important. Like the hero of a fairy tale leaving a trail of cake crumbs to mark a way out of the wild woods, Mr Comey sprinkled his testimony with some intriguing clues about the federal probes underway.
It is true, and important, that Mr Comey did not say that his conversation with the president about letting Mr Flynn go clearly met the legal standard for obstruction of justice. Some on the left are so consumed by dislike and fear of Mr Trump that they seem to think his impeachment is both inevitable and imminent.
Mr Comey offered a more nuanced view, but scattered crumbs to give Trump-sceptics hope, and the White House stomach-ache. He noted that Mr Trump had sent out a menacing tweet, saying his sacked FBI director had better hope there are no “tapes” of their conversations. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” said Mr Comey.
To his understanding, Mr Comey added, Mr Trump had not asked him to stop the investigation into Russian election-meddling. Indeed, he said, Mr Trump had told him that if “satellite associates” were guilty of wrongdoing it would be good to find that out.
Mr Comey felt that Mr Trump had effectively given him “direction” to drop his probe into Mr Flynn, even if he used the word “’hope”. Mr Flynn was at that time “in legal jeopardy”, facing an FBI criminal investigation into whether he had misled federal agents. Asked whether that amounted to obstruction of justice, Mr Comey replied that he is sure that Mr Mueller to “will work towards” understanding what the president’s intent was, and whether it amounted to an offence. The presidential request was alarming enough, Mr Comey went on, that he kept it from the FBI agents investigating the Flynn case, for fear it would have a “chilling effect” on their work.
Some other cake-trails were jointly scattered by Democratic senators and by their star witness. Mr Comey was asked if Mr Trump had ever expressed concern about Russian meddling in the election. No, he said. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democrat, asked why Mr Comey chose not to discuss his worries about the president with his then boss, Mr Sessions (a fierce law-and-order nationalist and early Trump backer).
Mr Sessions subsequently recused himself from oversight of Russia probes after the press revealed that he had failed to disclose meetings with the Russian ambassador during the election campaign, when he was a senator. Mr Comey told Mr Wyden that the FBI leadership was sure that Mr Sessions was about to recuse himself, adding: “We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.”
Senator Kamala Harris of California, a Democrat and former prosecutor, asked a series of questions that Mr Comey declined to answer in an open hearing. Ms Harris asked whether he was aware of any meetings between Trump campaign officials and Russians which have not been admitted to. She asked whether Trump officials or associates had tried to hide communications with Russian officials through encrypted means, and whether the FBI had come across signs of communication records or other evidence being destroyed. Mr Comey declined to answer each time.
Mr Trump himself was restrained during Mr Comey’s testimony, leaving the Twitter-field to one of his sons, Donald Junior, who said that Mr Comey had shown “weakness” and “put his own “character” on trial.” But do not expect calm for long. Shortly after Mr Comey’s testimony, a White House spokesman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, found herself fighting off questions about whether Mr Trump maintains a taping system, saying she has “no idea”. This president is not out of the woods yet.