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James Comey's testimony lived up to the billing, but won't sink Donald Trump

The US President's reputation took a beating, but it will take further revelations to sway his supporters.

It was billed as the ‘Super Bowl’ of American political events by an eager Washington press corps. Bars and restaurants in the nation’s capital opened early to show the coverage live. James Comey’s appearance before Congress yesterday did not disappoint.

Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, as part of its probe into Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election, it marked the former FBI Director’s return to the public spotlight after his sensational firing last month. And right out of the gate, Comey made his feelings perfectly clear.

In a crisp, spare statement befitting a former prosecutor, he set out his "confusion" and "concern" over the Trump administration’s account of his firing. Those reasons had shifted from Comey’s poor handling of Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, to easing the "pressure" of the FBI’s own investigation into Russian interference in the election, as the President reportedly told Russian officials themselves.

But then, Comey said, the administration "chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI" – claiming that Comey had been a poor leader who had lost the confidence of his colleagues. “Those were lies, plain and simple,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion.

"Lies" is a powerful word, made even more so when delivered by the former director of the FBI, about a sitting President of the United States. Even the ranking member of the committee, Senator Mark Warner – a Democrat – wasn’t prepared to use it, referring only to "non-truthful" representations.

But Comey used it again, in even more dramatic fashion. Asked why he had written memos detailing his conversations with the President – reports of which had prompted his appearance before the Committee – Comey explained: "I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting".

The magnitude of that statement takes a while to sink in – not since Richard Nixon have the personal ethics of the President been cast in such doubt, inviting the American public to question what kind of man occupies the Oval Office.

Comey had already set the stage with a written statement, released on Wednesday, that detailed five meetings and phone calls with Trump, painting a disturbing picture of the relationship between the President and the head of a federal agency meant to sit outside the political process.

"I need loyalty, I expect loyalty," Trump told Comey during a private dinner, which Comey saw as an effort to create a "patronage" relationship.

In a phone call, Trump asked the then-FBI director what might be done to "lift the cloud" of the Russia investigation. And most disturbing of all, he cleared the room after an Oval Office meeting to discuss the firing of Mike Flynn – Trump’s former National Security Advisor, who is under criminal investigation by the FBI for his contacts with Russian officials. Flynn was a "good guy", the President told Comey, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go…I hope you can let this go".

Republican Senators directed much of their line of questioning to this latter claim by Comey – "hoping" for something was not a command, they said; it wouldn’t stand up in court as clear evidence that the President was trying to obstruct justice (the potential criminal charge lurking beneath this reported incident).

But it’s hard to dispute Comey’s common-sense reading – that in the context of the Oval Office, with all its trappings of power and authority, the President of the United States expressing his "hope" that something might happen is as good as telling you to do it. Comey underscored the point later in his testimony, adding some medieval drama to the whole proceeding. It had struck him much like the famous line attributed to King Henry II, Comey said: "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

Another line of questioning – from Republicans and some Democrats – was why Comey hadn’t pushed back? Why hadn’t he told the President it was inappropriate to have these meetings, to make these requests?

Shouldn’t Comey have told someone – beyond the FBI leadership team with whom he had shared his memos? "Maybe if I were stronger, I would have", Comey reflected – referencing the Flynn meeting. "I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took in".

Much of the thrust of Republican questioning on this was to shift the burden of responsibility onto Comey. This was a new President, unclear in his responsibilities and the boundaries of office, they seemed to be saying. It was incumbent upon Comey to inform the White House counsel, who could then school Trump in the behavioural and legal niceties of being President. This was a remarkable position in many respects – not least for the naïveté it ascribes to the President. But it suggests a Republican Party not yet willing to abandon its standard-bearer, on which any prospect of impeachment (another charge lurking underneath all of this) will ultimately turn.

Of course, Comey did not emerge from the hearing entirely unscathed. His admission that he had himself leaked – via an intermediary – information on his memos to the New York Times, gives the President ammunition on one of his favourite topics.

Comey is a now a "leaker" in league with the "fake news" media. Though he managed to restrain himself from tweeting during the hearing, this will undoubtedly feature in Trump’s future pronouncements on the subject. It places Comey’s famed integrity in a somewhat different light, introducing an element of self-interest, attention-seeking, perhaps even "showboating" – as the President has accused him of – into the equation.

This all likely boils down to a "he said-he said" scenario – Trump’s lawyer denies Comey’s version of events (except for an admission that the President himself is not under investigation) and the much-heralded "tapes" of the meetings, which Trump suggested might exist, have not appeared so far. And yet, few would emerge from the hearing without some sense of doubt as to the President’s behaviour.

What Comey describes is a figure more reminiscent of The Godfather than The West Wing – a man using the trappings of office to bully and intimidate, seeking backroom favours and blind obedience from those he considers underlings. The problem, though, is that the American public had a pretty good sense of Trump’s persona in these respects, and elected him anyway. Only if further revelations verge closer to criminality, or go so far as to undermine any basic sense of decency in office, might Trump’s supporters begin to turn away.

Popular support for Nixon ebbed quite slowly during the Watergate scandal (though from a much higher initial point). But doubt and denial played a role – the President’s claim that he was "not a crook" doing little to assure the public. Trump has already shown himself comfortable with a relatively loose relationship with the truth, but his spokeswoman’s statement yesterday – "I can definitely say the President is not a liar" – may well come back to haunt him.

Emily J. Charnock is a Lecturer in American History at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Selwyn College

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear