An employee felt uncomfortable being alone in a room with the boss.
The boss, who is a very powerful man, made an inappropriate request.
The employee tried to placate him, but ultimately resisted and was fired.
And then, months later while being cross-examined in public about the incident, the former employee is shamed again when asked: “Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
It’s the testimony of former FBI director James Comey, who appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday. In a written seven-page statement released a day earlier, Comey said he’d felt pressured by his then-boss, President Donald Trump, who “hoped” he would drop a criminal investigation against former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Comey didn’t push back during the talk, but he also didn’t drop the investigation.
“Why didn’t you stop and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong?’” Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked the 6-foot-8 Comey on Thursday. “You’re big, you’re strong. I know the Oval Office, and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn’t you stop and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong — I cannot discuss that with you’?”
“Maybe if I were stronger, I would have,” Comey said.
And in that statement a great truth was revealed: the head of the FBI — an organization we’d all always assumed was full of stoic, foreboding men who spoke in code (“the red dog flies at night”) — is, in fact, human, and even a little self-deprecating.
Even when recounting how he’d ultimately defied Trump by refusing to drop the Flynn investigation, Comey didn’t want to overstate his power.
“I don’t want to make it sound like I’m Captain Courageous,” Comey said.
Up against the hubris of his former boss and other Capitol Hill types who’ve sat in that same chair while being grilled by congressional committees, Comey appeared more like one of us than one of them.
He walked into the Senate chamber to the sound of a billion cameras shuttering, looking self-conscious, like a gawky teen who still hasn’t mastered full motor-control of his tall, lanky body.
He sat stoned-faced, hands clasped on desktop, thumbs slightly moving, waiting for the onslaught of questions.
There were hints that his testimony was not going to be the usual tight-lipped affair of a former G-Man, and it wasn’t because he lacked a gray trenchcoat, black shades and a fedora.
His written testimony released on Wednesday was described by anchors and reporters across news platforms as “screenplay”-like, part romantic novel, part spy thriller: “When the door by the grandfather clock closed, and we were alone, the President began by saying, ‘I want to talk about Mike Flynn,’” he wrote.
CNN, MSNBC and Fox all had countdown clocks that ticked away the hours and minutes to Comey’s testimony Thursday.
Panels of talking heads on all the networks tried to glean as much as possible from the written testimony he released Wednesday: “After he had spoken for a few minutes about leaks, Reince Priebus leaned in through the door by the grandfather clock, and I could see a group of people waiting behind him. The President waved at him to close the door, saying he would be done shortly. The door closed.”
The colorful and candid testimony ramped up expectations for the hearing. Minutes before the televised event kicked off at 7 a.m., a Fox reporter teed viewers up for the D.C. scandal extravaganza: “Some critics have suggested Comey is a showboat,” he said, even though that critic was Trump. “The stage is his today.”
But the Comey who appeared on the stand was a different character than we’d seen in old footage, when he moved silently across the oval office to greet the president before he was fired last May, or stealthily dodged reporters.
His testimony was emotional when he spoke of his colleagues at the FBI, dramatic when he used shorthand to describe speaking with Trump about a potentially damaging dossier (“I was worried it would be a kind of a J. Edgar Hoover-type situation”) and surprisingly human when he recounted the conversation with the president in which they went back and forth on what time to meet for dinner: 6 or 6:30?
At one point, when the subject of possible tape recordings existing of his conversations with the president arose, Comey sounded like he should have been sitting on a Southern porch sipping lemonade in a heat wave rather than on a Beltway hot seat: “Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” he exclaimed.
As to why he didn’t leak his notes on those “uncomfortable” meetings with Trump to the press himself instead of going through a friend as an intermediary, Comey replied it would have been like “feeding seagulls at the beach.”
But the repeated questions from both Republican and Democratic senators — "Why didn’t you tell someone? Why didn’t you tell him what he was doing was wrong? Why did you keep working for him?" — were harder for Comey to answer.
It appeared to knock his confidence down a peg or two, and all of a sudden there were similarities between one of the most powerful men in America and the relatively unknown women testifying this week against Cosby.
Who ever thought we'd be here?
Comey answered more than once that he didn’t know why he reacted the way he did. He was stunned at times by the president’s unprecedented behavior, protective of his job and the reputation of the FBI in other moments.
He said he “took Trump’s request about Flynn as a directive,” but wrote down everything they said after each meeting because he didn’t trust Trump to tell the truth.
Trump’s lawyer shot back after the televised senate testimony, calling Comey “A leaking liar.”
Comey would have settled for Captain Courageous.