In the wake of former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony yesterday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, media and political pundits are struggling desperately to synthesize and package the event into a cohesive story. It’s as if everyone was somehow caught off guard and is now trying to make sense of things. This is especially fascinating given Comey provided a statement for the record that was made public the day prior to the hearing. While there may be no clear winner, there are definitely clear losers.
First, is the former FBI director himself. The 6-foot-8-inch Comey came off as a spineless bureaucrat afraid to tell the president his requests to go easy on former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn were inappropriate. Also, by acquiescing to former Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s request to refer to the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as a “matter” instead of an investigation, he undermined the FBI’s credibility. Agents joked that they now worked for the Federal Bureau of Matters. Finally, Comey engineered the leaks of official documents to the New York Times – especially ironic as he led the agency responsible for investigating the unauthorized release of government information.
Second, is the media. When Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) asked Comey about the accuracy of a New York Times article that claimed senior Trump officials had repeated contact with Russian intelligence officials, Comey answered that the story was untrue. Further, after Comey’s statement acknowledged he told the president three times he was not the subject of an FBI investigation, CNN was forced to correct a story that aired before the hearing that said Comey would deny any such assertions. Both the New York Times and CNN stories cited anonymous sources. While the use of anonymous sources is an important part of journalism, the get-the-scoop/break-the-story-first-at-all-costs pressure does not relieve journalists and editors/producers of their obligation to objectively evaluate the sources’ credibility. More on that here.
Third, is the president. His engagements with Comey about Michael Flynn and the Russian Hacking investigation were inappropriate. While they may not rise to the legal standard of obstruction of justice, they were certainly ill advised and have resulted in a controversy that has seriously damaged the president’s ability to pursue his agenda. This was totally avoidable. At best, he seems to be guilty of incredibly bad judgement, and at worst, an arrogant Manhattan real estate developer naive to the ways of Washington, bumbling along one misstep after another. Moreover, the incident has cast further light upon his administration’s most glaring shortcoming – its communications operation. There appears to be no cohesive strategy for dealing with the issue other than referring all queries to the president’s personal attorney. This is not a communications strategy, it is a legal strategy. While Mr. Trump’s attorney may be the best there is, this case is not being tried in a courtroom. It is being tried in the court of public opinion and when people enter that arena unrepresented (or represent themselves) they do so at their own peril (see “Flying the not-so-Friendly Skies”).
But it is the American people who are the biggest losers in all of this. These events are diverting the attention and efforts of our government away from what really matters. Our government and media should be focused on terrorism, healthcare, the economy or rogue nation states developing nuclear weapons to use against us. Not this. We are acting precisely the way the Russians predicted. There is no doubt they engaged in hacking activities tied to our elections. However, their objective was not to affect the election’s outcome, but to cause damage to our political system by creating a cloud of doubt and distrust. We all know better, but we just can’t help ourselves (see “The Scorpion and the Frog”).
The lesson from this is that whichever side of an issue you may find yourself on, you must have your messaging and position staked out in advance and use information from emerging events (such as Comey’s testimony) to underscore your narrative. Speed is of the essence following major news events and gaining and maintaining the information initiative is critical to effectively driving a narrative. In the information war, it is this that separates the winners from the losers.