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Words Still Matter

Francine Prose
Among the many riveting aspects of James Comey’s June 8 testimony was the opportunity to observe the senators and the former FBI director discuss the precise meaning of critical words and phrases.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Former FBI Director James Comey during a US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing, Washington, D.C., June 8, 2017

Among the many riveting aspects of James Comey’s June 8 testimony under oath before the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was the opportunity to observe the senators and the former FBI director discuss the precise meaning of critical words and phrases. Perhaps their efforts might have seemed less unusual, less necessary, and (at least to me) less moving had we not witnessed, in recent months, the emergence of an impoverished and debased public discourse: cryptic, incoherent, evasive, designed to prevaricate, insult, threaten—and inclined to ramble senselessly off topic. One measure of our frustration with Donald Trump’s disregard for clarity and truth was the avidity with which the public seized on his tweeted typo: “the negative press covfefe” had, as it were, spelled out the problem at last.

Yet those who fear that our society had ceased to care about language might take comfort in the committee’s strenuous attempt to parse what Trump meant by two seemingly simple words: “I hope.” Consider this exchange between Comey and Idaho Senator James Risch:

RISCH: You put this in quotes—words matter. You wrote down the words so we can all have the words in front of us now. There’s twenty-eight words there that are in quotes, and it says, quote, “I hope”—this is the president speaking—“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Now those are his exact words, is that correct?

COMEY: Correct.

RISCH: And you wrote them here, and you put them in quotes?

COMEY: Correct.

RISCH: Thank you for that. He did not direct you to let it go.

COMEY: Not in his words, no.

RISCH: He did not order you to let it go.

COMEY: Again, those words are not an order.

RISCH: He said, “I hope.” Now, like me, you probably did hundreds of cases, maybe thousands of cases charging people with criminal offenses. And, of course, you have knowledge of the thousands of cases out there that—where people have been charged. Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where this—they said, or thought, they hoped for an outcome?

COMEY: I don’t know well enough to answer. And the reason I keep saying his words is I took it as a direction.…I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying, “I hope” this. I took it as: this is what he wants me to do.

Later, California Senator Kamala Harris would give the phrase a different construction: “In my experience of prosecuting cases, when a robber held a gun to somebody’s head, and—and said, ‘I hope you will give me your wallet,’ the word ‘hope’ was not the most operative word at that moment.” And in one of the hearing’s most affecting moments, Comey and Senator Angus King of Maine used King Henry II’s remark about Thomas Becket to explain what, in Comey’s view, the president was implying in his use of “I hope.” Given the way in which Trump seems to take and encourage a boastful pride in being ignorant about the past, it was startling to see, on Capitol Hill, two men thinking, simultaneously, of an illuminating and relevant incident from medieval history:

KING:   When a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like “I hope” or “I suggest” or—or “would you,” do you take that as a—as a—as a directive?

COMEY: Yes. Yes, it rings in my ear as kind of, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

KING: I was just going to quote that. In 1170, December 29, Henry II said, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” and then, the next day, he was killed—Thomas Becket. That’s exactly the same situation. You’re—we’re thinking along the same lines.

Yet another discussion surrounded the meaning of patronage. When Senator Mark Warner of Virginia asked Comey what he meant when he suggested that the president seemed to be requesting that he enter into a patronage relationship, Comey replied, “My common sense told me what’s going on here is that he’s looking to get something in exchange for granting my request to stay in the job.” In this discussion, the words honesty and loyalty also came up for review. Comey’s use of honest to mean (in this context) independent, and Trump’s use of loyalty to signify subservient was addressed most directly in this exchange with Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island:


REED: You’ve testified that the president asked you repeatedly to be loyal to him, and you responded you would be honestly loyal, which is, I think, your way of saying, “I’ll be honest, and I’ll be the head of the FBI and independent.” Is that fair?

COMEY: Correct. I tried “honest” first. And also…tried to explain to him why it’s in his interest, and every president’s interest, for the FBI to be apart…because its credibility is important to a president and to the country. And so I tried to hold the line, hold the line. It got very awkward, and I then said, “You’ll always have honesty from me.” He said, “honest loyalty,” and then I acceded to that as a way to end this awkwardness.

One is struck by Comey’s insistence on inserting the word “honest” before the word “loyalty”; he means it as a qualifier, as a way of explaining, in shorthand, his priorities and his notion of professional conduct, and of defining the limits to which he will go to satisfy the president’s implied demands. (In the past, Comey has shown himself incapable of anything but scrupulous honesty, even when those scruples—manifested by his decision to call Hillary Clinton “extremely careless” in her handling of her email—have made him unpopular.)

What the transcript of the Comey hearing makes clear, and what was more difficult to gauge while watching the frequently tense proceedings, is Comey’s skill as a rhetorician—yet another gift that has been regrettably absent from our current political life. Risch complimented Comey on his written statement, which is indeed a model of clarity and concision. But Comey’s sworn testimony was, in some ways, more sophisticated than the pages he prepared in advance. Journalists have written about how Comey’s experience as a Methodist Sunday school teacher and his interest in the ideas of Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr may have shaped his political views, but what’s been less widely noted are the ways in which his public speaking reflects the cadences and rhetoric of the sermon.

At the start of his testimony (which, I would argue, was at least partly memorized), Comey made use of repetition, emphasizing the word confused to describe his response to the president’s asking whether he wanted to keep a job that, he assumed, was assuredly his: “They confused me… It confused me… I was also confused…” Throughout Comey’s responses to questions from the committee are locutions—“Lordy, I hope there are tapes”—reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: folksy, down-home, plainspoken. Over and over, Comey said, “I could be wrong… I could be wrong.” Hearing so many qualifiers, so many admissions of doubt and confusion, such frequent use of the words honest, honesty, honestly, and common sense, we could hardly fail to understand that the witness was trying—struggling—to tell the truth, as precisely as he could recall it.

So it was all the more startling and persuasive when Comey told the committee what he was not confused about, what he knew, beyond any doubt, that he was not wrong about. The following passage progresses from an admission of confusion to folksiness (“a whole bunch of reasons”) to cliché (“water under the bridge”) to what is perhaps the most damning of Comey’s assertions:

I was also confused by the initial explanation that was offered publicly, that I was fired because of the decisions I had made during the election year. That didn’t make sense to me for a whole bunch of reasons, including the time and all the water that had gone under the bridge since those hard decisions that had to be made. That didn’t make any sense to me.

And although the law required no reason at all to fire an FBI director, the administration then chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader.

Those were lies, plain and simple, and I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them and I’m so sorry that the American people were told them.

Soon after, Comey seemed equally certain about the three (italics mine) reasons why he had felt it essential to make a detailed record of his conversations with Trump from the start:

A combination of things, I think—the circumstances, the subject matter, and the person I was interacting with. Circumstances first: I was alone with the president of the United States—or the president-elect, soon to be president. The subject matter: I was talking about matters that touch on the FBI’s core responsibility and that relate to the president—president-elect personally. And then the nature of the person: I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document. That combination of things, I’d never experienced before, but it led me to believe I’ve got to write it down, and I’ve got to write it down in a very detailed way.

The nature of the person—that phrase is immensely significant and extraordinarily well-chosen. It is general and not specific (Trump and his official position go unmentioned), simple and not bombastic, descriptive and not accusatory; it employs the language of philosophy and theology rather than that of politics. It was repeated during Comey’s conversation with Senator Susan Collins of Maine, by Comey himself, and by someone on the panel whom the transcript identifies as “unknown.”


In the aftermath of the hearing, a number of journalists have attempted to identify its most alarming moment. Some have cited those words (“the nature of the person”) as a chilling statement about Trump’s moral failings. Others have reasonably reacted to Comey’s certainty about past and future Russian cyber-assaults on our democracy.

But there are other things that, on reading the transcript, I find even more alarming. One is the striking frequency with which Republicans on the committee reiterated the fact that, during Comey’s tenure, the president “was not under investigation.” This is, of course, the phrase that has been seized upon by Trump himself and circulated by the right-wing media, as if it marked a definitive answer to an ongoing matter that has yet to be resolved.

Even more disturbing was an exchange that also turned on a fine point of language. Comey had just explained that he drafted his detailed contemporaneous memos because, given “the nature of the person…I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting.” And this was how Senator Warner summed it up:

And so, in all your experience, this was the only president that you felt like, in every meeting, you needed to document, because at some point, using your words, he might put out a non-truthful representation of that meeting?

Warner was not in fact “using [Comey’s] words.” Comey had just said “lie” and Warner had diluted that to “non-truthful representation,” a phrase with nowhere near the force of the word “lie.” And that word—lie—was allowed to be buried under the verbiage of the proceedings. It was only used once more, in connection with Mike Flynn.

When Senators Dianne Feinstein and Marco Rubio asked why Comey didn’t inform the president that he was wrong to request his fealty, Comey confessed to Feinstein that he wasn’t strong enough; he told Rubio that he wasn’t “Captain Courageous.” Though we may well wish that Comey had been braver, we can understand his reluctance to chastise the US president for being out of line. But what’s harder to fathom is the spinelessness that seems to have infected many of these senators in the safety of a committee hearing.

Observing Warner reflexively translate lie into non-truthful representation, one wonders: Who is our Captain Courageous? The hearing proved that it is still possible for politicians to speak in complete sentences, to display a familiarity with history, to strive for linguistic and moral clarity: to make sense. But we are still waiting to hear from the senators and representatives with the fortitude to say lie as often as Trump’s supporters repeat not under investigation, and to insist that their colleagues consider the nature of the person who will say anything that comes into his mind, the nature of the person who, we have reason to suspect, lies—without conscience and so far without consequence—to us, the American people.

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