Arizona Senator John McCain has been one of the president's biggest critics, but gave a backhanded defense of Trump during his grilling of former FBI chief James Comey on Thursday.
Arizona Senator John McCain has been one of the president's biggest critics, but gave a backhanded defense of Trump during his grilling of former FBI chief James Comey on Thursday.
C-Span screen shot

John McCain Provides Biggest Fireworks, Gaffes of 'President Comey' Testimony

Arizona Senator John McCain defended President Trump during testimony on Thursday by former FBI Director James Comey, calling Comey's clearing of Hillary Clinton but not Trump a "double standard."

McCain launched a robust attack on Comey during the Senate Select Commitee on Intelligence, painting him as a partisan player with an interest in smearing Trump.

It was a somewhat surprising tack by McCain, who has been one of Trump's biggest critics.

And McCain seemed to show his age as he grilled Comey, letting loose with a couple of odd, Twitter-worthy gaffes:

He mixed up the names of Comey and Trump at one point, referring to "President Comey" until the former FBI director corrected him gently with a "no, sir."

McCain said many questions remained about Clinton's involvement in the election "in the minds of this member." And he either intentionally or inadvertently confused the investigations of Clinton's email server and of alleged Russian collusion with Trump's campaign before the November election.

According to a statement released by his office, McCain, 80, said he shouldn't have stayed up so late the night before the hearing watching the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the San Diego Padres. The almost four-hour game ended around 1:30 a.m. EDT today.

“I get the sense from Twitter that my line of questioning today went over people’s heads," he said. (See below for McCain's full response.)

Predictable social-media snarks included speculation about whether McCain was suffering a "stroke" or was going senile.

McCain, who was elected to a sixth term in November, was the last to speak before the panel recessed its public meeting and prepared for a closed-door session in which Comey could discussed classified matters with the panel.

Comey's testimony followed another Senate hearing on Wednesday in which Dan Coats, director of National Intelligence, and Admiral Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency. Also on Wednesday, Comey released a transcript of the written remarks with which he opened his testimony Thursday.

In the transcript, based on his now-famous memos, Comey described — among other things — how Trump asked him to "let this go," apparently referring to the investigation into former Defense Secretary Michael Flynn's contact with a Russian diplomat.

Comey said on Thursday he believed Trump and his administration were liars, that Trump meant to influence the Russia investigation with the "let this go" remark, and that he didn't inform U.S. Attorney General about the remark out of fear the AG could ultimately be part of the investigation.

"It's my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation," he said. "I was fired ... to endeavor to change the nature of the investigation."

Comey's morning testimony on Capitol Hill revealed several, additional newsworthy facts:

• The Russians interfered with the 2016 elections in a more robust way than in previous elections.

• Comey leaked word of his memo to a professor friend at Columbia University to avoid media attention.

• Comey said a February New York Times article claiming that Trump's aides had "repeated contacts with Russian intelligence" was "almost entirely wrong."

• He didn't know if he would have been fired if Clinton had been elected.

• He didn't know if the case would rise to the level of obstruction of justice.

Other Republican senators tried to pin Comey down with tough questions, including James Lankford of Oklahoma and Missouri's Roy Blunt, but it was McCain who seemed to get under Comey's skin — and vice-versa.

Comey tried immediately to shut down McCain's line of questioning about Clinton, telling the Arizona senator that he could say no charges would be forthcoming against Clinton because the investigation into her had been completed.

McCain acted as if he didn't hear what Comey had just told him, asking incredulously whether an investigation into "any involvement of Secretary Clinton or any of her associates is completed."

Comey answered that, yes, it had been finished on July 5 — an answer that momentarily stunned McCain. He gave a slight shake of his head, raised his eyebrows in apparent disbelief, then said in his "minds" he still had lots of questions about her involvement, as did the American people.

"She was clearly involved in this whole situation where fake news, it's a 'big deal' as you just described it, took place," McCain said. "You're going to have to help me out here. In other words, we’re complete on the investigation of anything that former Secretary Clinton had to do with a campaign is over, and we don’t have to worry about it anymore?"

"I'm a little confused," Comey told him, reminding him the Clinton probe was about her emails.

McCain pressed the issue. Because Clinton was a candidate in the election, she should be part of the Russia investigation, he said, so how could Comey declare her involvement in any investigation was complete?

Comey pushed back, saying the FBI never announced, and had no "predication to announce, Russians may have coordinated with Secretary Clinton's campaign."

McCain interrupted him: "They may have not have been involved with her campaign. They were involved with the entire presidential campaign, obviously.

"Both President Trump and former candidate Clinton are both involved in the investigation, yet one of 'em, you said, there's going to be no charges, and in the other, you say the investigation continues. Well, I think there's a double standard there, to tell you the truth."

McCain presented another line of attack against Comey, asking the former FBI chief about his claim that in a one-on-one meeting with Trump, the president told Comey "we had that thing, you know."

"Did that ever arouse your curiosity as to what quote 'that thing' was?"

Comey said he didn't think understanding the meaning was "important for the conversation we were having."

McCain told him he'd be intensely curious, and "I'd like to know what the hell 'that thing' is, particularly if I'm the director of the FBI."

"Yeah, I get that, Senator," Comey said, explaining that perhaps Trump believed Comey had pledged loyalty to him, then suddenly remembered that wasn't actually the case.

Below: The full response from McCain's office on the senator's behavior at the panel hearing:

Washington, D.C. ­– U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) released the following statement today on his questions at today’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with former FBI Director James Comey:

“I get the sense from Twitter that my line of questioning today went over people’s heads. Maybe going forward I shouldn’t stay up late watching the Diamondbacks night games.

“What I was trying to get at was whether Mr. Comey believes that any of his interactions with the President rise to the level of obstruction of justice. In the case of Secretary Clinton’s emails, Mr. Comey was willing to step beyond his role as an investigator and state his belief about what ‘no reasonable prosecutor’ would conclude about the evidence. I wanted Mr. Comey to apply the same approach to the key question surrounding his interactions with President Trump—whether or not the President’s conduct constitutes obstruction of justice. While I missed an opportunity in today’s hearing, I still believe this question is important, and I intend to submit it in writing to Mr. Comey for the record.”

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