There seemed to be no question that issued a more passionate response from the cool-and-collected James Comey at his June 8 Senate hearing than when the former FBI director was asked about the underlying purpose of the investigation itself: Russian interference in America’s election last year.
“There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever,” Mr. Comey said Thursday. The Russians interfered and they did it with purpose, sophistication, and overwhelming technical efforts – all driven from the top, he added.
“It is very, very serious, which is why it’s so refreshing to see a bipartisan focus on that,” Comey told the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is comprised of eight Republicans and seven Democrats. “This is about America, not about a particular party.”
It was a point made by several senators but one that Comey seemed particularly keen on bringing out on a high-drama day that had a tinge of partisanship to it: Democrats tended to view his testimony as strengthening the case that President Trump tried to obstruct justice in the investigation, while Republicans said it pointed to a novice president unfamiliar with the ways of government and law enforcement, as the Monitor's Linda Feldmann reported.
But Comey spoke of the underlying issue of Russian interference in a way that might appeal to a divided country – reminding Americans of the seriousness of the issue, that Russia is trying to undermine American democracy itself.
“The reason this is such a big deal is — we have this big, messy, wonderful country, where we fight with each other all the time. But nobody tells us what to think, what to fight about, what to vote for, except other Americans. And that’s wonderful and often painful," he said.
“But we’re talking about a foreign government that, using technical intrusion and lots of other methods, tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is a big deal. And people need to recognize it. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats.”
Left unsaid was that the United States has a long history of trying to influence elections and the political trajectory in other countries.
Americans do generally recognize that Russia is an adversary. Most Americans – 75 percent – view Russia as a very or moderately serious threat to the United States – the highest rate since 1985. But they are politically divided over the question of Russian hacking.
Nearly all Democrats (93 percent) agree with the statement that Russia was behind the campaign hacks targeting the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign, while 48 percent of Republicans agree, according to a January poll by the Pew Research Center.
Focusing on 'the big deal'
The line for the public to attend Thursday's hearing snaked down the hall and around the corner, and was full of Capitol Hill interns, hoping to get a first-hand look at this moment in history.
Senators on both sides of the aisle say the way to keep the underlying problem of Russian interference from being buried or devolving into a partisan issue is for them to keep on doing what they’re doing – cooperating on their probe and continuing to dig into the means and methods of interference so that when they are done with their work, they can recommend how to stop Russia from interfering in the future.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, blamed President Trump for downplaying Russian interference in the election. "The whole Russian travesty was diminished by President Trump from the start. And I think what Comey’s trying to do is breathe life back into it and he should. If we don’t do something to the Russians, trust me, they’ll do something to us."
There is bipartisan support in the Senate for tacking additional Russia sanctions onto a separate bill related to sanctions on Iran.
When Americans look at the investigation, what they see is "a lot of acrimony," says Sen. Jim Risch (R) of Idaho, a member of the Senate intelligence committee. But inside the committee, "we are working together to address that issue [of interference] and how we can keep that from happening again.”
'We remain that city on a hill'
Russia will continue its efforts to meddle in US elections, said Comey, whose seriousness was broken by a few moments of levity – such as when he recounted having to call off a dinner date with his wife after Mr. Trump invited him to dine at the White House.
Russia is "coming after America, which I hope we all love equally. They want to undermine our credibility in the face of the world," said Comey. "They think that this great experiment of ours is a threat to them, and so they’re gonna try to run it down and dirty it up as much as possible. That’s what this is about. And they will be back, because we remain — as difficult as we can be with each other, we remain that shining city on the hill, and they don’t like it.”
Staff writer Story Hinckley contributed research.