Conservatives torch Comey’s credibility ahead of Senate hearing – McClatchy Washington Bureau
Washington will be riveted this week by the drama surrounding former FBI Director James Comeyâs expected congressional testimony.
But Republicans elsewhere in the country say they couldnât care less.
Interviews with GOP activists across the country, including around a dozen attendees at this weekendâs North Carolina Republican convention, reveal deep mistrust of Comey, who was investigating possible connections between Russia and the Trump campaign before the president fired him.
Comey, slated to appear before the Senate intelligence committee on Thursday, is also expected to respond to reports that Trump pressured him to give former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn a pass. Yet there is little Comey could say this week that would change how grassroots Republicans view the president.
âThereâs nothing about Jim Comey that I trust,â said state Sen. Ron Rabin. âThereâs nothing consistent about what he says.â
Asked whether Comey has any credibility, he offered a view shared by many Republican activists gathered at this airy waterfront convention center: âNone. Zero.â
Nationally, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, operatives and donors have expressed alarm about the complicated, multifaceted issue of Russian involvement in an American election, some of which Comey is expected to speak to this week. Some, like Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican of Idaho, have vouched for his credibility, especially given reports that he has contemporaneous notes from conversations with Trump.
But at this convention, which offered a snapshot of the Republican grassroots, many considered the broader Russia issue as, at best, a distraction from issues like health care and the economy. And others saw the swirling questions around Russiaâincluding the Comey investigation and coming testimonyâas pure partisanship driven by Democrats and the media to undermine the legitimacy of Donald Trumpâs victory last November.
âThe whole thing with Russia is nonsense,â says Jim Gannon, a GOP activist in North Carolina.
âTheyâre desperately trying to justify why Hillary Clinton lost other than saying Democratic policies arenât acceptable to people,â said Gannon. âThis whole thing is a pretty desperate attempt at partisan politics. âWow, the Russians swung the election.â What did they do, come and vote? No.â
U.S. intelligence experts, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, have been adamant that Moscow did in fact interfere with the 2016 campaign, and intelligence officials have said Russia pushed for hacking of Democratic officialsâ emails. Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied this, saying in a recent interview with NBCâs Megyn Kelly that such an order could have come from anyone, including from Americans.
Allison Powers, an attendee who said she is the secretary of the Charlotte-area Union County GOP, was inclined to believe him.
âPutin suggested Russiaâs being made a scapegoat for hacking,â she said. âThatâs what I think too.â
Long-time U.S. government officialsâthe âdeep state,â she calls themââdonât want Trump. Theyâre trying to mess him up.â
Others didnât go that far, but a number of people questioned whether Russia had really sought to interfere with the U.S. election.
âWe need to do everything we can to become allies with Russia,â said T.J. Johnson, the vice president of the North Carolina Federation of Republican Men. âAs for election meddling, I donât think they really had anything to do with it.â
And some argued that even if Russia did meddle, America has engaged in similar political interference in other countries. It was an echo of Trumpâs broader defense of Putin earlier this year, after former Fox News host Bill OâReilly called the Russian leader a âkiller.â
âThere are a lot of killers,â Trump replied. âYou think our countryâs so innocent?â
The remark made many hawkish Republicansâwho have spent careers preaching the virtues of American exceptionalismâcringe at what they saw as moral equivalence.
But attendees here in Wilmington also stressed that they donât see the Russia issue as particularly relevant, and said they would rather focus on domestic issues Republicans promised to move on (though lawmakers have often been thrown off course by each new Russia revelation, which has distracted from their congressional agenda).
There is also a chance that Trump will move to keep Comey from testifying at all by invoking executive privilege, though administration officials downplayed that possibility in a New York Times report over the weekend.
âThis whole thing about Comey testifying is really big news in D.C. and for people that live on this stuff, but to people concerned about earning a living, raising kids, putting a few bucks in retirement, this is not important,â Gannon said.
Across the country, actor Antonio Sabato Jr.âa Trump-supporting California congressional candidate of âGeneral Hospitalâ fameâwas more succinct: âRussia, itâs a disgrace. We have more important issues to think aboutâ than âRussia fake stories.â
Still, some Republican activists are expected to tune in to the Comey hearing, even if they take a dim view of him and the investigation he used to lead.
âA lot of people are going to pay attention,â said Kansas GOP Chairman Kelly Arnold. âThis is the first time heâs really spoken publicly since being terminated by the president. I think people will listen to what he has to say, and all Americans are wanting to find out what the facts are in a lot of these allegations that get thrown around. Theyâre wanting to know what the truth is, want to know if there were any laws broken.â
Back in North Carolina, some convention attendees, such as Tom Fyleâa city councilman from Wilson, N.C., near Raleighâsaid they would also be listening to the Comey testimony. But they didnât expect to learn much.
âThe facts,â Fyle said, when asked what heâd be watching for.
But he made clear that he doesnât believe Comey is a trustworthy source of such information: âI donât know that heâs credible with facts. He hasnât been credible so far.â
Certainly, there were some in attendance who said that if Russia did in fact meddle in the election, that should be cause for concern, and should be treated as a national security issue.
âIt all needs to get out there, all responsible people want to know what happened,â said Chuck Kitchen, the former Durham County Attorney who reluctantly voted for Trump in the general election. He wasnât sure if Comeyâs testimony was the best way to do that, but added, âThe thing Iâm concerned about is if Russia did meddle in the election. I think it should concern all Americans.â
North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr is the chairman of the intelligence committee, and some said they would trust his findings. And a number of attendees, including Kitchen, praised Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading an investigation into the issue. They said they hoped such an appointment would get the White House and Congress back to focusing on policy.
âWeâve spent so much time on the Russian probe, that it is frustrating because weâre not getting other things done,â said Michele Woodhouse, an attendee from Raleigh.
Woodhouse doesnât find Comey trustworthy, but said Mueller is someone who has earned bipartisan praise, and could free up Congress to turn back to issues like health care and the tax code. Asked if she could trust Muellerâs ultimate assessment, wherever he lands, she replied, âAbsolutely. No matter what he says.â
But outside the convention center, protesters made clear that the left wonât make it easy for the GOP turn back to bread-and-butter domestic issues anytime soon.
âRussia!â someone yelled. âYâall got a Russian flag in there?â