James Comey's testimony this morning was noteworthy in a number of ways without itself changing the broader political dynamics surrounding the Trump administration. Comey confirmed a number of specific revelations about his relationship with Trump in public and under oath, implying that he viewed Trump's behavior as quite possibly constituting abuse of power or obstruction of justice. Along the way, he signaled that former national security advisor Michael Flynn is being investigated for potentially lying to the FBI, and hinted opaquely that attorney general Jeff Sessions is sufficiently connected to the issue of Russian electoral sabotage that he properly needed to recuse himself from any Justice Department inquiries into the subject.
Anyone expecting Republican officeholders to begin suggesting based on today's events that Trump may have committed an impeachable offense was undoubtedly disappointed. As I've written before, impeachment is a political—and largely partisan—process, and Republicans simply have no political incentive to pursue it.
At the same time, it was easily apparent this morning how few true fans Trump has within his own party. On this score, what didn't happen at the hearing was as telling as what did. No Republican really offered an endorsement of Trump's behavior; most simply ventured that there might be a less damning explanation for it than the one offered by Comey and repeatedly emphasized that the FBI's counterintelligence investigation had not reached Trump himself. Republicans declined to criticize Comey's own leadership of the FBI, to suggest that he was misrepresenting any facts, or even to explicitly challenge Comey's assertion that he was fired in retribution for his handling of the Russia investigation. Some senators were clearly much more comfortable talking about the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton, or inaccurate stories in the media than the actions of the current president at the heart of Comey's testimony.
When combined with the pugnacious statement released today by Trump's personal lawyer, the hearing confirmed that the Republican Party's defense of Trump on the Russia issue has split into two different tracks. Many congressional Republicans have adopted the position of conceding, or at least not disputing, Comey's factual claims while offering a more benign interpretation of the evidence—perhaps, as House Speaker Paul Ryan suggested this morning, this is all just a big misunderstanding stemming from Trump's inexperience in government. Their approach differs substantially from Trump's own case, which is built around the accusation that Comey is an outright villain who has intentionally lied under oath and improperly disclosed information to the press.
The first defense is obviously much safer ground than the second for Republican politicians, who hold some respect for Comey and who by now have learned not to lean too heavily on Trump's word about anything. But it will be interesting to see whether Trump is satisfied with their devotion to this version of events, or if he becomes frustrated with the reluctance of his own fellow partisans to publicly trash Comey on his behalf. It also raises the probability that Trump will once again take to Twitter to personally mount his own defense, even though Comey explained today that an ill-advised presidential tweet actually set in motion the appointment of a special prosecutor last month.
To some critics, Comey's account itself provides Congress with sufficient grounds to begin impeachment proceedings. But while it's legally or constitutionally defensible to argue that obstruction of justice can occur regardless of what the underlying crime is (if any), there's no way that the political act of impeachment goes anywhere without a lot more damaging evidence than is now available about what was being covered up. So we end the day with more notable details filled in, but with the central mystery of this entire matter still frustratingly unresolved: why did Trump go to such lengths to protect Michael Flynn? Until this question has a clear answer, impeachment remains a purely hypothetical scenario.