- - Sunday, June 11, 2017


Sorting out the winners and losers in the James Comey soap opera is almost as much fun, for media groupies, as the hearing itself. Whether the sacked FBI director repaired his reputation, or Donald Trump was severely damaged by having mean things said about him, depends, as always, on partisan point of view.

The mainstream media, so called — The New York Times, The Washington Post and the television networks — didn’t emerge from the day looking so hot, either. Mr. Comey, the capital’s new leaker-in-chief, likened the reporters who gathered in his driveway in pursuit of news bits as “sea gulls at the beach.”

Mr. Comey revealed himself to be more short-winded and assailable than a chief G-man is expected to be, telling Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who asked him why he didn’t stand up to President Trump’s entreaties to go easy on Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn if he thought it was wrong. He replied, with no manly shame, that he might have if he were “stronger.” Citing weakness as an excuse for misfeasance of duty must surely be a first for a G-man.

The president himself demonstrated once more that he thinks he can apply the ethics of lawyers, bulldozer drivers and building inspectors to the business of government, which is sordid enough. Government ethics are no greater, but they’re clothed in clever disguise. “Ease up and maybe you can keep your job.” The president never said that, even in so many words, but Mr. Comey, like a Philadelphia lawyer, thought he recognized the lawyerly ethical code between the lines of what the president said.

The media, and particularly the press, had a particularly bad hair day. Mr. Comey challenged the veracity of The New York Times, which regards itself as the fount of all wisdom, in a story breathlessly headlined “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence.” This was the story that put the cat among the pigeons, taken by the press mob as the long-sought smoking gun, proving that Donald Trump had sold out to the Russians. He would now be driven from office. The only thing wrong with this terrific, Pulitzer-worthy story, Mr. Comey testified, was that “in the main, it was not true.”

The Comey hearing was a triumph of the “factoid,” novelist Norman Mailer’s famous invented word to describe something that looks like a fact, sounds like a fact, but in fact is not a fact. Washington is the great incubator of factoids. Factoids explode in public discourse like the mushrooms in the forest after a warm spring rain. Factoids bounced around the room like Ping-Pong balls at a grade-school tournament.

Mr. Comey declined, several times, to say that the president’s importuning him to go easy on Mike Flynn constituted an obstruction of justice. He had succeeded in leaving that impression, but having never used the word that might invoke impeachment. A factoid would do the dirty work as the pursuit of a president resumed.

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