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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

James Comey’s testimony drew crowds of journalists. A few people, showed up too

During Former FBI Director James Comey's testimony to

During Former FBI Director James Comey's testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee journalists gathered to watch patrons at a bar in Brooklyn. Some patrons joined them, too. Photo Credit: Mark Chiusano

If you were walking into the popular Brooklyn brunch spot Building on Bond Thursday morning, the first person you probably met was a staffer for “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” asking whether you were comfortable being on TV.

The show wasn’t the only outlet in the house as former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony drew closer. PIX11, ABC and a French TV station’s cameras panned across the bar taps, from Guinness to Haufbrauhaus.

Among the journalists, a real person: Dennis Villasana, 46, who said he’d found out about the bar event from a Business Insider article.

“Yep, that was me,” said the woman standing next to him. She was Kate Taylor, the Business Insider writer who’d written the online post Villasana had read.

It was that kind of scene. More than a dozen reporters crammed into the hip little space, there to see the people there to see the Comey show. And it was a Comey crowd — this is Brooklyn north of Midwood, after all, and Comey is a liberal hero these days.

“Give ’em hell buddy,” the bartender shouted as the former director approached the microphone on screen. Samantha Bee’s cameras egged on a Russian toast from a table of patrons. The hearing began.

Schrodinger’s political pundit

Strange, though: There weren’t many huge reactions from the crowd. The lines buzzing around Twitter — Comey calling Trump a liar, the repeated assertions that he believed he was fired because of the FBI’s investigation into Russian contacts with Trump campaign associates — they were met with guffaws and some grins but nobody was exactly doing the wave.

This doesn’t make for good TV, or copy. Reporters did their best to pull people out and get a quote. Natasha Betts, 38, went into the bar’s back room for a moment, on camera with the comedy show.

“They asked what I thought about this,” she said when she came back. She worried that she hadn’t been funny. Minutes later, a French reporter asked whether she would speak. “Just your opinion,” he said.

She agreed, opining that the hearing was very important, then finally went back to her bagel.

“Oh, my God, I hope no one puts another mic in my face,” she said. “I just want to watch.”

One of the larger laugh lines came when Comey likened the reporters gathered around his house to hungry “seagulls.” The harried Brooklynites, for a moment, could agree.

The process at work

In some ways, journalists and drinkers were there for the same reason: to see “civic engagement” in action, Villasana said. A lawyer from New Jersey, he’d stopped at the bar for a Lagunitas to share the “big event” with other people. Everyone was on the same side — not like a bipartisan debate-watching party at a bar he’d been to in Trenton during the campaign, he said. There, things got ugly.

But Thursday, many of the like-minded folk were trying to wrap their heads around what was going on, to sort through their opinions. “I feel like this should be fake news,” said Foo Cassidy, a former insurance analyst. As in, fake like fictional, as if the events Comey was testifying to shouldn’t even be real.

This impulse makes sense because of the complicated nature of the recent revelations and counter revelations about the FBI’s investigation. It’s a full-time job keeping track of who is — or might be — under investigation for what, and who is cooperating, lying or just spinning. The spirit of confusion was cynically sewn, too, by Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who tried again and again to question the veracity of media reports, despite the fact that the most important reports were being confirmed as Comey spoke. And of course the Republican Party line takeaway of the day: the story is the leaks.

Maybe being there in the bar was an attempt by patrons to physically show their displeasure at the real story: that Comey took President Donald Trump at his word that he was fired because of the “pressure” the Russia investigation was putting on Trump. And that Trump appeared to attempt to influence legitimate FBI investigations. That was not fake news.

Eventually, people started reacting more to what was happening on the TV, particularly when Sen. John McCain began his deeply strange and convoluted line of questioning.

“How are these people in charge?” one woman asked. “Sit down, grandpa,” shouted another.

The beer might have helped, too.

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