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Stoli, FBI sandwiches and Twitter: Comey testimony on Trump and Russia turns America into one big watch party

Stoli, FBI sandwiches and Twitter: Comey testimony on Trump and Russia turns America into one big watch party
Americans were riveted Thursday by former FBI director James Comey's testimony. (Photos by Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and Getty Images)

For a few brief hours, America was united once more.

Red state, blue state. Rural, citified. Black, white. Deep-breathing in a yoga pose, or slowly sipping an eye-opening Bloody Mary at a corner tavern.

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James B. Comey, the former FBI director-turned-Trump-tormentor, caused millions of Americans to halt whatever they were doing Thursday and turn eyes and ears to his stolid yet gripping testimony before a Senate committee plumbing Russian meddling in last year's presidential campaign.

The line for a relatively few public seats in the hearing room at the Hart Senate Office Building began forming well before the sun peeked over the Capitol. For the rest of the country, the only way to watch was from afar: on TV — there was no end of channels carrying it live — on a smartphone or computer screen, or unfolding as a playlet, 140 characters at a time, on Twitter.

In Los Angeles, Kelly Perine uncorked the first bottle of champagne at 6:30 a.m. The yoga soon followed.

"Let go of whatever tensions we may have," the 48-year-old actor and producer told five people doing poses in his living room, as they faced televisions scrupulously tuned to MSNBC and Fox News.

A Pennsylvania native who described his views as left-leaning — but who wishes there were more political harmony — Perine threw the doors to his Los Feliz home open at 5 a.m.

One of the first guests was Krissy Harris, 47, a Democrat wearing a pink "pussy hat" that she knitted for the huge protest marches that came the day after President Trump's inauguration. "It's history," Harris said of Comey's marquee appearance. "How do you not watch it?"

Countless numbers agreed. The collective viewing from coast to coast recalled other political moments of drop-everything drama: the Watergate hearings, Oliver North's Iran-Contra testimony, the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas confrontation.

In New York City, at a bar that often features stand-up comedy, a dozen or so watched Comey on a big-screen TV, finding precious little to laugh about in the proceedings.

"I find it terrifying more than funny,'' said John Conroy, 35, a stand-up comic who dropped by the Q.E.D. Club in Queens, which, as it happens, is in the same borough where Trump lived as a child.

"This is a difficult time for us," Conroy said. "Before the election, Trump was great fodder. I was joking about him at clubs, but now I find a pall falls over the room when you mention him.''

There were, of course, those who chose not to partake.

In Kingman, Ariz. — a deeply red part of an increasingly purple state — the TV at Ma and Pa's Hot Rod Cafe was turned to ESPN, which suited Dave just fine. (He didn't want his last name used, he said, because he figured the media was liable to mangle his words or selectively quote them just to stir up trouble.)

"It doesn't interest me because I know [Comey's] not going to say much," Dave, a Trump supporter, said from a red checkerboard table.

Gary Sheler, a conservative radio voice of Kingman and Bullhead City, Ariz., said his listeners had little use for Comey or whatever he had to say.

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"Part of that is, he's a showboat looking for attention," Sheler said, echoing the words Trump used to denigrate the former FBI chief. "Expect a kangaroo court, and nothing to come of it."

But many, it seemed, were determined to find some way to follow along. Less than three hours into his testimony, Comey was mentioned on Twitter nearly 1.6 million times.

Washington being Washington — which is to say the quintessential company town — it was hard to find anyone who wasn't tuned into the hearings in some fashion. Doormen and baristas glanced at smartphones; taxi drivers plied the streets of the capital to the sound of news radio.

Even so, Eric Heidenberger was surprised by the crowds that descended on Shaw's Tavern, the unassuming neighborhood bar he co-owns, which had advertised its Comey-watching party on social media.

By its 9:30 a.m. opening, a line had stretched a full city block. The main floor, upstairs and an outdoor patio all quickly filled to 150-person capacity, with 10 televisions tuned in to the hearing and many listening from the sidewalk.

About half a dozen Washington watering holes had early openings and jokey food-and-drink specials — Shaw's was offering "FBI" sandwiches (fried chicken, bacon and iceberg lettuce) and serving earlier-in-the-day-than-usual shots of Stolichnaya — "because, you know, Russia," Heidenberger said.

Another bar, the Partisan, was serving cocktails christened "The Last Word" and "Drop the Bomb," while yet another establishment, the Union Pub, advertised a round of drinks on the house for every time Trump tweeted.

To the considerable surprise of many, and the dismay of some, the president held back and the free booze remained stoppered.

Although there was quiet absorption during much of Comey's testimony, some comments drew a strong crowd reaction. A trio of young women at Shaw's Tavern visibly shuddered when the fired FBI chief referred to being alone with the president-elect. "Eeew," one said.

There was a round of cheers and applause when Comey referred to "lies, plain and simple" about the FBI being in disarray. And Comey's declaration, with a catch in his voice, that he hadn't had a chance to say goodbye to colleagues drew a chorus of "Aww!"

Some were left wanting more.

"I keep waiting for something really honest and revealing," Megan Cramer, 39, a high school theater teacher, said over a Diet Coke at Manuel's Tavern, a traditional watering hole for Democrats in Atlanta. "I was hoping he would reveal something incredibly criminal, but he's not really disclosing anything big."

Back in Los Feliz, the group clapped when Comey's testimony ended. As they lay sprawled on chairs, couches and the floor, the early-morning yoga crowd debated the significance of his testimony.

"I felt that he was being fair and honest," said Marvin Glover, 48, a film producer and Democrat who sometimes votes across party lines.

Several said they appreciated the humility Comey seemed to show in admitting that he could have been more aggressive in confronting Trump in private when he said the president sought to thwart an investigation of his fired national security advisor, Michael Flynn. "He was a real person," said Harris, a toymaker.

Perine agreed. "He in some ways now comes off as a balanced character that he will not necessarily throw either side under the bus ... regardless of what side people are on," he said.

But for all its drama, and through-the-roof ratings, Comey's testimony seemed likely to change few minds.

"If we were here last night and we watched the Golden State versus Cleveland game at the end of it, we would not debate who won," Perine said of the NBA championship series. "In some ways, politics, basically, has unfortunately become an interpretive dance where the left and the right weren't necessarily watching Comey to get the truth" but rather seek points to buttress their opinions.

In that way, Americans — whatever their views — continue to have much in common.

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Barabak reported from San Francisco, King from Washington and Pearce from Los Angeles. Also contributing were Times staff writers Barbara Demick in Queens, N.Y., Nigel Duara in Kingman, Ariz., and Lauren Rosenblatt in Washington and special correspondent Jenny Jarvie in Atlanta.

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UPDATES:

3:55 p.m.: This article was updated with further reaction to Comey's testimony.

This article was originally published at 1:10 p.m.

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