Drama hits Shakespearean levels as Comey takes stage
In an extraordinary hearing yesterday, former FBI director James Comey told a compelling tale of a president trying to pressure and sway the lead investigator - first to lay off former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and then to "lift the cloud" of the Russian investigation.
What Mr Comey confirmed was a point we have made frequently - US President Donald Trump is in peril for abusing his powers, perhaps obstruction of justice, not for the underlying collusion investigation.
Mr Comey supplied a big part of the picture and made clear that there is substantial evidence from Mr Comey and others to support that conclusion.
Mr Comey focused on the February 14 meeting when Mr Trump cleared the room and then said he "hoped" Mr Comey would let go of the Flynn probe.
As Mr Comey pointed out, when a president sends everyone out, looks the FBI director in the eye and says he hopes a case will go away, that amounts to an order.
"I took it as a direction," he said.
That in itself was inappropriate in the extreme.
As Republican Senator Susan Collins put it, clearing the room and making the "ask" was wrong.
Playing defence, Republicans on the committee tried to shift the issue to Mr Comey's failure to immediately rebuke the president.
"I was stunned," he said. He also explained that in essence there was no one to report it to, given Attorney General Jeff Sessions's impending recusal.
Republicans did their best to deflect the question as to Mr Comey's failure to raise a red flag. While politically predictable, their questioning implicitly recognised that Mr Trump had acted improperly, if not illegally.
In response to questions about Mr Trump's public comments. Mr Comey said bluntly that Mr Trump had not told the truth when he said Mr Comey had requested the infamous dinner meeting and when he said he never asked for Mr Comey's loyalty.
This is more significant than one might imagine. In essence, it is part of a cover-up of conduct that may be illegal and certainly was improper.
Mr Comey made clear that Mr Flynn is under investigation for allegedly lying to FBI investigators. He did, however, confirm that Mr Trump was not personally the subject of a counter-intelligence investigation. Interestingly, he noted that one person in his executive team was concerned that this was problematic, since the campaign was under investigation and so the candidate of that campaign might be part of that.
Democrat Senator Martin Heinrich led Mr Comey in a series of questioning that made clear that in all these questions Mr Trump didn't inquire about the danger to the United States posed by Russia as a result of interference with our electoral system.
The lack of concern about an investigation into a hostile power's cyberattack on the United States contrasts with Mr Trump's insistence on clearing himself from a "cloud". Mr Trump looks upon the entire Russia investigation as a "cloud", a political problem for him. The lack of concern about the nature of the underlying Russian meddling confirms what many knew already - this is a deeply narcissistic man who cannot help but put himself first.
Perhaps the highlight of the hearing came during questioning from Independent Senator Angus King, who incidentally was also a star in Wednesday's hearing when senior intelligence officials refused to answer questions without legal justification.
Trying to determine what Mr Trump was asking him in the February 14 Oval Office meeting, Mr King asked whether this was not a Henry II situation, quoting Shakespeare's great line as the British monarch expressed exasperation with his nemesis, Thomas Becket (later murdered in the play): "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" Mr Comey echoed the line, agreeing that he had a similar thought.
Mr Comey certainly raised a number of questions. For one thing, what Mr Trump meant by "cloud" is unclear. If he was referring merely to clear him publicly, the request is not so serious. If the "cloud" was the Russian investigation as a whole, then it was a request to get rid of the entire investigation, a far more problematic request.
Mr Comey also suggested that both Mr Sessions and Jared Kushner hung around after others left the February 14 meeting, raising the possibility that they knew Mr Trump was going to behave inappropriately.
Much as Republicans tried to make this about Mr Comey's conduct - his failure to tell the president not to ask him about Mr Flynn, his decision to leak the contents of his memo - Mr Comey succeeded in painting a disturbing picture of a president trying to convert an FBI director into his minion and trying to get his friend into the clear.
And just as disturbing is the realisation that in the most devastating attack on American democracy, Trump cares only about Trump. (© Washington Post Syndication)