FBI Director James Comey testified on Russia’s attempts to interfere in the U.S. presidential election Monday amid high drama on Capitol Hill.
Comey’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee had been eagerly awaited. It lived up to its billing.
Here are the key points as the dust settles.
Comey did real damage to Trump
The FBI director inflicted a double blow on President Trump early on in the hearing.
He first confirmed that the bureau is investigating links between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government.
And he stated flatly that he had “no information” to support the president’s assertion, first made on Twitter, that former President Barack ObamaBarack ObamaOvernight Energy: Trump's climate order coming Tuesday Feehery: Freedom Caucus follies Perry visits proposed Yucca nuclear waste site MORE had wiretapped him at Trump Tower.
The media focus will next turn to whether the bureau will uncover evidence of outright collusion between Team Trump and Moscow.
On the accusation of wiretapping, Comey did not even provide a fig leaf for the White House. In addition to asserting that the FBI has no evidence to support the wiretapping charges, Comey noted, “The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets.”
The one-two punch from the FBI director made for a rough day for Trump and his aides.
On Twitter, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough called it “the worst day of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump wants B for 62 miles of border wall: report Trump can boost national security, own legacy with Russian arms deal Press: Did Trump learn? MORE’s presidency.”
The White House was quick to create distance
White House press secretary Sean Spicer took to the lectern in the press briefing room in the afternoon as Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers were still testifying on Capitol Hill.
Spicer’s briefing was notable for the vigor with which he sought to put distance between the White House and the figures around whom speculation about Russian ties has swirled.
The effort was undermined, however, by Spicer’s insistence that one of those people, Paul Manafort, played “a very limited role” in Trump’s presidential bid.
In fact, Manafort became campaign chairman in May last year and effectively ran Trump’s campaign between June and August.
Spicer’s assertion drew negative comments from a number of prominent reporters, both on Twitter and on cable news, where the networks covered the events intensely throughout the day.
Spicer also took a verbal swing at “hangers-on around the campaign,” which appeared to be a reference to Carter Page, whose level of involvement with Team Trump remains unclear. Page, sometimes described as a campaign adviser on foreign policy, took a trip to Moscow last summer. Concrete details are scarce, and speculation is intense about that trip.
Trump loyalists have long been scathing about Page, but the push against Manafort — and to a more modest degree against controversial GOP consultant and longtime Trump friend Roger Stone — has only set the media’s antennae twitching with the sense that something big is around the corner.
Republicans want to make leaks the real story
While Democrats pushed their belief that there was something nefarious going on between the Trump campaign and Russia, Republicans stuck equally ferociously to insisting that people with access to classified information were leaking it to damage the new administration.
Rep. Trey GowdyTrey GowdyGowdy: Nunes briefed president on matters 'unrelated' to Russia probe Sunday shows preview: Aftermath of failed healthcare bill Has Putin already won? He divides US intel from political leaders MORE (R-S.C.) was especially passionate on that topic. At one point, Gowdy appeared to suggest that reporters who published classified information should be prosecuted.
Even Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), who is generally seen as a more moderate figure than Gowdy, asserted, “I’ve never seen such a sustained period of leaks.”
Several Republican members of the panel seemed disquieted by how the controversy involving Michael Flynn came into the public domain. Flynn resigned after the shortest tenure ever as national security adviser when it emerged that he had misled Vice President Pence about the nature of phone conversations he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
More broadly, however, there seemed to be an attempt to bolster the White House narrative that there is a “deep state” working to undermine the president.
“The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information. Must find leaker now!” the president tweeted on Monday morning.
Comey won’t be easy to sully
The Trump administration can’t have been happy with Comey’s testimony, but so far it is resisting any impulse to go on an all-out attack against him.
The first question Spicer faced at his briefing — from Jonathan Karl of ABC News — was whether the president still had “complete confidence” in the FBI director.
“There’s no reason to believe he doesn’t at this time,” Spicer replied.
While hardly a rip-roaring endorsement, those words underline the trouble the White House faces.
Comey famously earned the ire of Democrats in the closing stretch of last year’s presidential campaign when he announced that the bureau was investigating newly discovered messages possibly related to its investigation into Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonPath to 60 narrows for Trump pick Overnight Cybersecurity: New questions for House Intel chair over WH visit | Cyber war debate heats up | Firm finds security flaws in 'panic buttons' Cheney: Russian election interference could be ‘act of war’ MORE’s use of a private email server while secretary of State.
Some in Clinton’s orbit believe Comey’s announcement cost her the election. Whether that is true or not, Team Trump would have a near-impossible task in trying paint Comey as biased against it.
The White House is under a cloud
Near the end of the day’s proceedings, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) told Comey he had put “a big gray cloud” over the White House.
Nunes, who worked on Trump’s transition team, appeared to be expressing dismay at that reality. But both parties would accept it as a fact.
The political dynamics have changed now that the FBI investigation is public knowledge.
The White House can expect to face questions on a daily basis about the probe, while the media attention on what Comey’s agents are finding, and about whom, will be feverish.
The Memo is a reported column primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.