Andrew Ricci, Vice President, LEVICK
Since the beginning of the week, the major news networks have had the countdown clocks in their ever-present chyrons ticking: 5 Days Until Comey Takes the Hill; 2 Days Until Comey Testifies Before Senate Intelligence Committee, and so on, fueling increasing levels of hype and hysteria.
We’re now counting hours and minutes, though, and the anticipation is growing at a level normally reserved for Presidential debates, State of the Union addresses, and the Super Bowl. Just like with these events, bars and other venues across DC have spent the week making headlines for their attempts to capitalize on the heavy interest, luring audiences with watch events and drink specials related to the hearing and its surrounding circus. There may not be enough breakfast booze in Washington to satisfy everyone who tunes in at 10 am.
I was headed into a meeting at around 2:00 this afternoon when the initial stories broke that the ousted FBI director’s opening remarks had been released to the public. Already, my colleagues were buzzing about it and reading it on their smartphones while we waited for our meeting to call to order.
Many are wondering whether there was a strategy behind making the comments public well in advance of the event’s commencement. Doing so certainly had a few key outcomes: it thrust tomorrow’s story even further into today, all but obliterating the rather uneventful testimony from the four heads of federal intelligence agencies. And, as if the anticipation wasn’t already at peak levels, it further hyped the Thursday hearing, which was already slated to override regularly scheduled daytime programming on ABC, CBS, and NBC.
As noted in the Washington Post, the list of Congressional hearings that have had sufficient public import to preempt regular programming is extremely short. That list includes the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, Watergate hearings in 1973, Iran-contra hearings in 1987, Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991, and President Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings in 1998. Look at that list again, because this is on that level.
We now know how Mr. Comey is going to start, and it’s as much of a doozy as we expected. From 2:00 on Wednesday well through Thursday and into the weekend, this will be the leader in every newscast and cocktail hour conversation across the country.
So, the question has been posed, why was the testimony released a day in advance?
It’s important, and noteworthy, to remember that releasing it early was not Mr. Comey’s decision, but rather that of the Senate Intelligence Committee. This committee, as this investigation has unfolded, has operated as a rare bipartisan body in a Congress otherwise deadlocked by partisanship. But despite the close and mutually-respectful working relationship between its Republican Chairman and Democratic Ranking Member, the Republican leadership of the committee holds the ultimate decision-making power over what – and when – materials are posted.
It may be similarly noteworthy to remember that releasing witness testimony well in advance of a hearing is a relatively standard procedure. In fact, it would be much more uncommon for the opening remarks to be withheld.
Remember that the Senate Intelligence Committee took the reins of this investigation after the similarly bipartisan relationship between the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee broke down, caused in part by its Republican leader going rogue and cutting the Ranking Member out of the process. Thus, by following standard protocols on materials release, even though it lengthened the window of media coverage and intense media scrutiny, the Senate Intelligence Committee maintained the reputation of the bipartisan investigation, which, by its very nature, is perpetually walking a fine tightrope. Unpleasant as it may be for Republicans looking to stand with the leader of their party, if this relationship breaks down, the entire legislative oversight apparatus is called into question. And that would spell big trouble for our democracy.
Releasing the statement today also, as much as it could, gave the White House an opportunity to respond in advance and get in front of the story. And they did take that opportunity. Through his private attorney, the President said he felt “completely and totally vindicated” by the remarks, as “Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the President was not under investigation in any Russian probe.” Well, I guess that is one bright spot, I suppose – and one that will certainly be the key talking point from the President’s defiant supporters.
Tomorrow’s hearing will undoubtedly be must see TV not just for politicos but for people around the world. We know how it will start, but the real fireworks will be in Mr. Comey’s responses to intense questioning from both sides of the aisle. After the hearing concludes, the subsequent commentary from Congressional leadership will be just as interesting, as they will have to focus on the uncomfortable allegations that the President’s repeated attempts constitute real, honest-to-goodness obstruction of justice. Ringling Brothers might have recently brought down the big top for good, but the circus is very much in town. We’ll all be tuned in tomorrow morning to see how the plot thickens.