McCain’s line of questioning for Comey not exactly a straight line

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, questions former FBI Director James Comey at Thursday’s hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. McCain’s disjointed questions left some spectators scratching their heads. (Photo by Ben Moffat/Cronkite News)

Former FBI Director James Comey, stoic through much of the 2.5-hour Intelligence Committee hearing, appeared to grow impatient as he struggled to understand Sen. John McCain’s questions at the end of the hearing. (Photo by Ben Moffat/Cronkite News)

Spectators line up outside the Intelligence Committee hearing where former FBI Director James Comey’s testified about private discussions with President Donald Trump over FBI probes of Russian attempts to influence the White House. (Photo by Ben Moffat/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Former FBI Director James Comey may have expected many things when he testified to a Senate committee Thursday – but being promoted to president was probably not one of them.

But that’s what Arizona Sen. John McCain appeared to do in a question in which he accidentally called the former FBI chief “President Comey.”

It was one of several disjointed questions from McCain on what was easily the biggest stage in Washington this week, a performance that left many scratching their heads and sparked a torrent of pokes, and jokes, on social media at his expense.

McCain soon got into the act, releasing a statement that said watching the Twitter posts on his performance made him think his “line of questioning went over people’s heads.”

It was a bit of levity in an otherwise serious day of testimony from Comey to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which wanted to know whether President Donald Trump pressured Comey to drop an FBI investigation into Russian influence with top White House aides.

Lawmakers also asked Comey about the circumstances of his May 9 firing by Trump, who claimed low morale at the FBI and a lack of support for Comey in the agency led to his decision.

Comey began the 2.5-hour hearing by charging that the president’s claims that the FBI is in disarray “are lies,” and apologized to FBI employees for the slight.

A lawyer for Trump responded by noting that Comey reaffirmed the fact that the president is not under investigation, and that the former FBI director admitted being the source of some leaks to the news media after his firing.

The hearing came almost one month since his firing as FBI director and weeks after Comey agreed to appear before the committee, as long as the hearing was public.

The bipartisan committee grilled the former FBI director on his impression of the president, his stance on the relationship between Russia and the current administration, and the circumstances of his termination.

In his testimony, Comey answered as many questions as he could while carefully avoiding classified material. If a topic was too sensitive, Comey said he would answer questions on it during a closed-door session later in the afternoon.

McCain was the last senator to speak but his questions quickly bogged down. At one point where he appears to be asking about Trump, McCain asks Comey his opinion in “the case of Mr. Comey” then stumbles through several other names and titles before landing on “President Comey.”

The hard-to-follow line of question confused the otherwise stoic Comey, who went from audibly impatient with McCain to a laugh as he put up his hands to deny the president title.

The back-and-forth continued for eight minutes, with McCain struggling to frame questions and Comey trying to understand them as the two men occasionally talked over each other and other senators looked on, incredulous, until McCain ran out of time.

The Twitterverse exploded with jokes and jabs at McCain’s expense, with the senator’s questioning reaching third-most trending topic shortly after the hearing ended.

McCain was soon poking fun at himself in his early afternoon statement, which blamed his public gaffe on staying up too late to watch Wednesday night’s Arizona Diamondbacks game. The Diamondbacks’ Twitter account got in on the fun by responding simply with the shrugging emoji.

In the statement, McCain wrote what he couldn’t articulate at the hearing.

“What I was trying to get at was whether Mr. Comey believes that any of his interactions with the president rise to the level of obstruction of justice,” McCain said in that statement. He added that he still believed his question was important, and he plans “to submit it in writing to Comey for the record.”

McCain’s handling of the stumble was praised by Jason Rose, a public relations specialist from Scottsdale, who invoked the Diamondbacks in his analysis of the senator’s response.

“Zach Greinke is the No. 1 star for the Diamondbacks,” Rose said, comparing McCain to the former Cy Young award winner. “Not every outing is perfect and some outings are bad, but he’s still a great pitcher you want in rotation.”

Rose, who specializes in politics, elections, and crisis management, complimented McCain’s Twitter response, which helped mitigate the “concern that McCain went from cool senator to crazy uncle.” He said that McCain’s strength over the years has been self-deprecation.

“You can recognize when you’ve had a bad day, or a bad game. McCain had a bad day,” Rose said.

-Cronkite News video by Alex Valdez