In the fired FBI director’s much-anticipated hearing, Washington sees an opportunity for a boozy Thursday morning.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Fired FBI Director James Comey won’t even begin testifying for at least another half hour, but the line outside Shaw’s Tavern is easily a hundred people long. It stretches down Florida Avenue and snakes down the sidewalk; the bar is already full. It’s like the circus is in town. Which, well, it kind of is.
Comey’s hearing is a show this city is pumped for. And like any good summer blockbuster, it had a teaser trailer: His prepared statement, which was released late Wednesday afternoon. It had everything that most popcorn flicks released so far this year have been utterly lacking — tension, drama, clarity of plot, eyebrow-raising dialogue (“I need loyalty, I expect loyalty”), and a killer kicker: “That was the last time I ever spoke to President Trump.” Anticipation for his testimony grew, and savvy D.C. watering holes capitalized on this confluence of the capital’s favorite things: dramatic political moments, and alcohol before noon.
Outside Shaw’s Tavern, where there is probably about one journalist on hand for every ten civilians, people keep using the word “hope” to describe the energy in the air, a twisted way of repurposing Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan for 2017 means. All anybody in this crowd can hope for, now, is something as fundamental as the truth, and also something as extraordinary as impeachment, and also, a drink. They’re really hoping to get a drink.
“At least 90 percent of the people in this line hope Trump gets impeached.”
Shaw’s is opening early for Washingtonians to “want to watch the drama unfold” as Comey testifies. For “The Comey Hearing Covfefe,” as the good folks at Shaw’s have named the occasion, Stoli vodka — think of it as tasty Russian interference — is only five bucks, and the BLT is replaced with the FBI sandwich (fried chicken, bacon, and iceberg lettuce). The FBI breakfast is French toast, bacon, and ice cream, and it’s $10, if you make it inside, but most of the people waiting in this line probably won’t.
“I feel like my odds of getting in are about 50/50,” said Meghan Cassidy, a teacher who grew up in the area and decided she may as well use the day off to do something as “quintessentially D.C.” as watch the hearing over a boozy brunch. She wasn’t expecting quite this big of a crowd, but she understands why the mostly liberal masses of the District are here for this. “I think everyone is looking for any kernel towards Trump’s impeachment. And this gives people hope.”
Lydia Graslie, a systems engineer, saw a news item about the Shaw’s event and figured, “Why not be a part of history? This brings us back to Watergate. To be at an event like this is important.” When she checked the Facebook event, 600 people had RSVPed. “I thought, ‘There’s no way they’ll all come.’” She scans the growing line behind her. “But they did.”
“It’s pretty D.C., to be here in the thick of it, get the atmosphere,” said Alexandra Simone, an auditor. “It’s similar to voting on Election Day, or being in the Women’s March. It’s the camaraderie.” She wanted to be here just in case “some big surprising thing” comes out that “will make everyone go, ‘Oh my God!’” There’s something about being in the room, the assurance that “I’m not alone in my opinion,” and the ability “to bounce ideas off of other people,” that appealed to her. “I don’t want to miss it.”
She eyed the crowded sidewalk. “At least 90 percent of the people in this line hope Trump gets impeached.”
One of the 90 percent is Charlie Germano. “I just am holding out hope that this is the last straw. That the president picked a fight with the wrong guy.” Germano works in the tech sector; today, he’s playing hooky. “This is a once in a generation event. Being here at this time in this place is something we’ll tell our grandkids about.” (At least, it’s something people in D.C. will tell their grandkids about. Germano’s been here a decade, but based on his experiences in other U.S. cities, “People are not lining up down the streets in L.A. to watch the Comey hearing.”)
“I’ve needed a drink every day since November 9.”
Like, it seems, a lot of the people in this audience, Germano believes in Comey. The country “has lost our sense of what is true and what isn’t true, what is real and what isn’t real. And I feel like this guy has most trust than the Sean Hannitys or the Rachel Maddows. He’s not a pundit. It’s not about politics. It’s about what’s true.”
How much of his desire to watch the hearing in a bar is about the fact that he knows he’ll need a drink for this? “I’ve needed a drink every day since November 9.”
Jessica Bates, a freelance digital strategist, grew up in Washington. “This is nerdier than nerd prom,” she said. “Our sports teams don’t always play well. But our political game is on point.”
“For people who care about democracy and our country, this has been an exhausting year. The idea that we could end up on the right side of history” is something of a relief, Bates said. “It sucks to be angry at and embarrassed by your leader,” just like it sucks to be derided as “snowflakes, sensitive crybabies, [which] we’re not.”
By 10:15 a.m., the hearing is underway, and the people still stuck in line are huddled around phones and laptops, craning their necks through the wide, open windows of Shaw’s to get a glimpse of the screens inside. The CNN chryon reads: “Comey: No doubt Russia meddled in election.” Comey is insisting that it’s “not for me to say” whether Trump was obstructing justice. And Trump has yet to tweet a reply.
This uncharacteristic restraint, which could just be proof that Trump’s staffers succeeded in distracting him all morning with any variety of shiny objects — golf clubs, Ivanka’s hair, pee from a Russian hooker — is a bummer for the swarms of young Washingtonians gathered at Union Pub, where they were promised a round on the house for every Trump tweet. The “special,” called #Treats4Tweets, is slated to run until Comey’s testimony ends, or until 4 p.m., whichever comes first.
Things were more pleasant on the patio, where the hearing was playing on two massive screens, plus one normal-sized one, than the scene inside, where the crowd density made it all but impossible to move. It was totally packed and almost totally silent, as the room stood, rapt, while the questioning began. So many bodies, so few free shots. The only Trump live-tweeting the proceedings was Donald Jr., and (probably not the first time somebody’s said this about him) he doesn’t count.
Outside, grad students Max Sounders and Autumn Nance are postponing a study session for a hearing-and-drinking party. When Sounders arrived around 9:45 a.m., “This bar was already packed… It was six people deep at the bar, not even trying to order, just trying to stand. Once the testimony started, everyone just went absolutely silent. I’ve never seen that many silent people in one place, except for church.”
“I’m torn between the hope of, ‘this is bringing out an absolute truth,’ and the feeling of, ‘Okay, but will people care? Will this actually change anything?’ Probably not.”
“I drove here, and every bar I passed, there was a line outside,” said Nance. “Some bars I’d never heard of. It was clear that this city was ready to hear the truth.”
Sounders is from the Florida panhandle, and “if I were at home, I probably wouldn’t have watched this,” he said. “But since being here, you’re in the epicenter of what’s happening in this country… You can’t help but see it all… You can’t escape it, if you live here. You feel every change.”
“This is like watching Watergate live,” added Nance. Her attitude, which, should D.C. ever achieve statehood, would not be an unreasonable contender for a motto: “Why not watch history with a drink in my hand?”
Sounders is conflicted between optimism and nihilism, likely not an unusual tension in this neighborhood. “I’m torn between the hope of, ‘this is bringing out an absolute truth,’ and the feeling of, ‘Okay, but will people care? Will this actually change anything?’ Probably not,” he said.
They’re not (too) upset that Trump hasn’t tweeted. “He makes personal and reactive tweets way too often. As high as the entertainment value is, it’s not professional and it’s not presidential,” said Sounders. “The things he tweets are ridiculous. Although I would love to know exactly what is going through his head right now.”
And whether or not the rounds are free, Sounders plans to keep the refills coming. “This is my third drink, and I’m not nearly drunk enough.”
For less of a rowdy scene with marginally easier access to the bar, a person could head toward the Partisan, where six dollar cocktail specials, plus the full bar, were available as early as 10 a.m.
When attorney Suzanne Garwood arrived at 11:30 a.m., the bar was “completely packed. You couldn’t walk two feet in the room.” By early afternoon, as the hearing is winding down — Sen. John McCain’s unintelligible questions are underway — the space is decidedly more civilized. A person can feel the air conditioning and even get in a drink order without too much trouble.
“This is like watching Watergate live. Why not watch history with a drink in my hand?”
Garwood is “not at all confident that there will be an impeachment… I think folks really want a smoking gun. They want something that is this truly impeachable offense, and I don’t know that that’s what these hearings are for. But it’s great that people are listening and paying attention.”
The biggest reaction from this room came when Comey made a comment about how he wishes he’d kept his dinner date with his wife instead of canceling on her for a fateful meal with Trump. “Everybody laughed,” she said.
As the hearing wrapped up and the audience dispersed, Garwood said the whole experience — slipping out of work to watch the hearing with a beer and hundreds of your closest fellow Washingtonians — was “really kind of a D.C. thing. It’s like our Super Bowl.”