James Comey is at it again.
The FBI director, in his deadpan way, characteristically unleashed a new chain of political consequences Monday, in hours of steely testimony before a House hearing examining Russian meddling in the presidential election.
Just five months ago, Democrats were left fulminating at Comey’s handling of the probe into Hillary Clinton’s email server.
Now, as Comey wades back into the political swamp, it’s Republicans who are left to fret after the FBI chief sensationally dispensed with protocol to confirm his agents were probing alleged collusion between then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign aides and Moscow.
By publicly confirming the probe, Comey sentenced the White House to months of uncertainty, potential leaks and distractions that already threaten to sap the President’s political capital at a crucial moment.
It is quite possible that no charges will ever be leveled against Trump aides and that the FBI counter-intelligence operation will find that there was no wrongdoing or collusion by Obama aides.
But the suspicion will hover for months over former Trump associates like former campaign chairman Paul Manafort — who denied any wrongdoing in a statement on Monday — and foreign policy expert Carter Page — and by extension over the President himself.
“The longer this hangs out here, the bigger the cloud is,” Republican House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes told Comey as the hearing broke up, urging him to expedite the investigation.
“There is a big, gray cloud that you have now put over people who have very important work leading the country,” Nunes said.
In a second blow to the President’s credibility, Comey told the House Intelligence Committee that he had “no information” to support claims by the President that Trump Tower was targeted in a surveillance operation ordered by his predecessor Barack Obama.
Comey’s deskmate at the House Intelligence hearing, National Security Agency Chief Mike Rogers, torpedoed another Trump claim — that Obama had ordered British spies to eavesdrop on his presidential election campaign.
Such has been the disruption and the uproar during Trump’s first two months in office, that the significance of individual events in the torrent of political news often gets overlooked.
But the spectacle of two of the most senior intelligence chiefs publicly contradicting the President for whom they work marked another milestone in an administration that is shattering all kinds of conventions.
The trio of bombshells put an increasingly beleaguered White House on the defensive. Trump’s recent poll numbers are among the lowest of Trump’s presidency.
“Following this testimony it’s clear nothing has changed,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said during Monday’s briefing. “Senior Obama intelligence officials have gone on record to confirm there’s no evidence of a Trump/Russia collusion.”
But the new headache for the White House was not the only takeaway of the day of testimony in the House hearing room at the Longworth Office Building, where theater style seating exacerbated the sense of political drama.
White House stands its ground
It also became clear that Trump and the White House will not be chastened by the fact that the President’s claims about wiretapping have now been publicly rebuked by top US intelligence chiefs and bipartisan congressional leaders.
His White House and Republicans in the committee introduced a new wrinkle in the Russia saga, raising legitimate questions about whether leaks that exposed former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s name following his conversations with the Russian ambassador breached the law.
They also implied that fast practice by the former Obama administration may be to blame, supplying new grist for the conspiracy mill that operates around Trump and his supporters in the conservative media.
“Director Comey told the House Intelligence Committee that certain political appointees in the Obama administration had access to the names of unmasked US citizens, such as senior White House officials, senior Department of Justice Officials, and senior intelligence officials,” Spicer said.
“Before President Obama left office, Michael Flynn was unmasked and then illegally, his identity was leaked out to media outlets, despite the fact that as NSA Director Rogers said, that unmasking and revealing individuals endangers quote, national security.”
Comey did confirm that some Obama officials might have had access to the intelligence, but declined to draw any conclusions about them.
Spicer also said that Trump would not apologize to Obama for his now debunked claim that the 44th President ordered wiretapping against him — saying there was a lot about surveillance that remained unknown.
It was a characteristic response from a White House that is allergic to apologizing even when facts contravene its presentation of events. The tactic worked well for Trump during his campaign. Whether he can adopt a similar stance as President, and retain credibility is more open to question.
The White House counter-attack also implicitly called into question the legitimacy of the probe against Trump campaign aides itself.
Before Comey testified, Trump branded claims his campaign colluded with Russia as “fake news” and the invention of Democrats still chafing at Clinton’s shock general election defeat.
Democrats on the attack
Republicans had hoped going into the hearing that Comey would say that there was no evidence of coordination between Russia and Trump aides.
But he pointedly did not do so — citing the need to protect an ongoing investigation — though cautioned no one should read anything into his silence.
That fact alone is sure to give Democrats months of ammunition as they try to use the unsolved cloud of rumor and innuendo about Moscow to weaken the presidency of Trump.
“I take congressman Nunes’ point that this has created a cloud over the Trump White House right now,” said Brian Fallon, former spokesman for Clinton’s campaign on CNN on Monday.
“That will probably impair their ability to advance their legislative agenda,” he said, arguing that Comey’s confirmation of a probe but refusal to handicap it was the worst possible outcome for the administration.
Reflecting Democratic frustration with Comey, Fallon also questioned why he had spoken publicly about the FBI investigation into Clinton’s email server in the final days of the election — but had not told Americans as he did Monday that the investigation into Trump aides and possible collusion with Russia — was opened in July.
Questions like those helped to spice the partisan flavor of Monday’s hearing when it often seemed like Democrats and Republicans were attending a different event.
GOP lawmakers showed a unity in raising questions about the unmasking of Flynn, suggesting Trump need not worry yet about ebbing support on Capitol Hill. Many Democrats, meanwhile, seemed determined to raise every allegation about Trump and Russia — most of which have little hard evidence in support.
“I was a little concerned by both parties,” said Mike Rogers, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who is now a CNN analyst and is of no relation to the NSA chief.
“Here we had this opportunity for both sides to come together and lay out what the Russians have been doing. … That was completely lost today, it was Republicans decided ‘hey its all about the leaks’ — which are bad — sure enough, and Democrats decided they were going to make the case because Comey couldn’t make the case publicly,” Rogers added. “I think we both swung and a miss here.”
That fractured, partisan approach suggests that even when the House Intelligence Committee produces its own report on the Russian interventions in the election, it is unlikely to cool a furious political storm over the affair.