THE MEMO: Bruised by Comey, Trump avoids catastrophe

As the smoke begins to clear from James Comey’s dramatic testimony on Capitol Hill, one thing has become clear: It was bad for President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE — but it could have been worse.

The fired FBI director delivered several gut punches to Trump and his administration, but there was no knockout blow. 

Comey’s testimony enflamed Democrats and progressives, whose appetite to impeach Trump is growing by the day. 

But for that to become a realistic possibility, Republicans would need to desert the president. There were few signs of that happening around the dais of the Senate Intelligence Committee.  

While the Republican members did not challenge the veracity of Comey’s testimony, they appeared skeptical of some of his interpretations of his interactions with Trump. None suggested that they believed the president had obstructed justice. 

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Still, the political world has been shaken and much remains uncertain. One Republican member of the panel, Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioPessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire McConnell: Wearing a mask is 'single most significant thing' to fight pandemic McConnell goes hands-off on coronavirus relief bill MORE, on Thursday afternoon pushed back against a newspaper report from his home state that said he “defended” Trump.  

“I didn’t defend or attack anyone,” he wrote on Twitter.

Twitter provided another of the day's surprises: The president’s account remained silent throughout the proceedings. 

Comey’s testimony was the most intense drama played out on Capitol Hill in decades. Some Washington bars opened early to screen the hearing, which was carried live on broadcast TV networks as well as their cable counterparts.

The foundations had been laid the day before, when Comey’s opening statement was released. 

The seven-page document was full of vivid detail, including Comey’s account of an Oval Office meeting with Trump on Feb. 14, the day after Michael Flynn was forced to resign as national security adviser. 

On that occasion, Comey said, the president told him Flynn was a “good guy” and expressed the wish, “I hope you can let this go,” an apparent reference to the FBI investigation into Flynn, which encompassed his call with a Russian ambassador after the presidential election. 

Comey was asked by Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Yates spars with GOP at testy hearing Democrats want Biden to debate Trump despite risks MORE (D-Calif.) why he did not “stop and say, Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you.” 

Comey replied: “It's a great question. Maybe if I were stronger, I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took [it] in.”

The gravity of Comey’s central charges was clear. 

He asserted that he believed Trump’s “hope” for an end to the Flynn probe was in fact a “direction” — a violation of the FBI’s traditional independence. 

Comey welcomed the idea that there were indeed covert tapes of his White House conversations with Trump, which could be released.  

And he accused the administration of defaming him and the bureau in its explanation of his firing. “Those were lies, plain and simple,” Comey told the packed hearing room. 

The president’s defenders took heart from Comey’s acknowledgement that he had told Trump several times that he was not personally under investigation. They blasted the former FBI director as an unreliable witness in other respects. 

Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, stated that the president “never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone.”  

In another direct contradiction of Comey’s testimony under oath, Kasowitz asserted that Trump had never told the FBI chief, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” 

If the conflict between Trump and Comey ultimately comes down to one person’s word against another, Comey’s defenders will note that he has a number of advantages: He appears to have made contemporaneous notes regarding all their significant encounters and discussed some of his concerns at the time with the top leadership of the FBI.  

Trump has not offered any evidence to support his now-famous tweet from May 12 implying there are tapes of his conversations with Comey, and the White House declined again on Thursday to say whether Oval Office discussions are taped. 

Still, Comey gave his own critics ammunition. He created a stir with his admission that he had asked a personal friend, a Columbia University professor, to give details about one of his Trump memos to The New York Times.

Comey said he had done so after the president’s tweet about tapes, though that timeline was contested by Kasowitz. Comey said he calculated — correctly, as it turned out — that details of his memo “might prompt the appointment of a special counsel.”

The move could be seen as a demonstration of Comey’s political savvy. But conservative pundits were quick to call it a leak — though there is no suggestion the material was classified — and to portray it as an underhanded move on Comey’s part. 

There were several other threads to the day’s events that would be huge stories in more normal times.  

Obama-era Attorney General Loretta Lynch fared badly in Comey’s testimony, as he portrayed her as overly sympathetic to Hillary and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonGiuliani says Black Lives Matter is 'domestic terrorist' group We have the resources to get through this crisis, only stupidity is holding us back Biden needs to bring religious Americans into the Democratic fold MORE during the FBI’s probe into the former secretary of State's use of a private email address and server while at State.

Comey’s testimony about the current attorney general, Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe 'pitcher of warm spit' — Veepstakes and the fate of Mike Pence FBI officials hid copies of Russia probe documents fearing Trump interference: book Tuberville breaks DC self-quarantine policy to campaign MORE, was also intriguing. He said that he believed it was “inevitable” that the attorney general would recuse himself from the Russia probe. 

“We also were aware of facts that I can't discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic,” Comey said.

It was a grim day for the Trump administration — but it’s now over. 

Comey does not appear to have any more bombshells left to deliver. Republicans have not deserted Trump. And the whole Russia matter rests with the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller, which may take months to complete. 

Comey wounded the president. But Trump now has some time to recover.

— The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.