Medicating yourself into paralysis is a necessity if you’re going to watch a Donald Trump-era congressional hearing. The same officials get hauled before the same committees to respond to the same senatorial soliloquies with the same mealy-mouthed deferrals to the same other officials who are currently unavailable and possibly don’t exist. It is not a pleasant experience.
James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee today promised to break the mold: obstruction of justice, a lawman gone rogue, this hearing was to have it all. Still, if you nonetheless needed a little lubrication to make it through, Union Pub had you covered. The bar, a Massachusetts Avenue fixture and Capitol Hill haunt, announced it would be holding a Comey watch party and handing out free drinks every time Donald Trump tweeted. It was a sharp promo, one that indulges two of Washingtonians’ favorite hobbies: unproductive drinking and unproductive marinating in their hatred of Trump. But America’s capital city is a busy place: surely, I thought, the allure of free drinks wouldn’t reel in that many people.
For a 10-year Washingtonian, that was a stupid assumption. The line at 9:30 a.m. was halfway around the block and just beginning to slither forward. I found its end and followed it into the bar, which quickly turned into a cacophony of chatter and Fox News reverb. I’ve been to Union Pub many times—several years back I developed a weird routine of coming here to drink with a close friend on Sundays, which ended after Mondays became a bit too excruciating—and the only time I’d ever seen it this bustling was during Redskins games. Eventually the breaking news stings started sounding like the Fox NFL theme and Shepard Smith’s voice became indistinguishable from Jim Nantz’s; much has been written about how politics is turning into sports and it was here that the merger was finally completed, at least for me.
James Comey emerged, the hearing began, and the now-jam-packed crowd shushed itself into silence. The future of the American presidency was dangling from so much gossamer, but I was hung up on the only question that mattered: whether to go full immersion journalism and do the free shots or exercise my renowned and substantial self control.
“You have to do it,” said a co-worker who’d dropped by. That settled it then.
This being Washington, it quickly became evident that Comey was the home team. His opening statement, in which he accused Trump of being a liar and defended the FBI, elicited squeals, conspiratorial laughter, and a round of applause. But would his nemesis, the president of the United States, respond on Twitter? It occurred to me that, like the illegal immigrants who built Trump Tower, my wellbeing was now firmly at the mercy of The Donald. He could leave me painfully sober by staying silent; he could also launch a napalm strike on my liver. I couldn’t decide which would be worse.
Comey’s every quip—give him credit, he has some wit—elicited cheers from the crowd. I’d managed to secure a bar stool but there were now so many craned heads in front of me that I couldn’t see the television. I barely heard Dianne Feinstein when she said she had “such great respect” for Comey, after ripping him as “sanctimonious” and a merchant of “baloney” only a month earlier. “You’re big, you’re strong,” Feinstein gushed at one point, eliciting cat calls from the crowd (mercifully no “I’m With Her” crop tops were thrown at the screen). I was thus reminded why I drink heavily whenever I come to Capitol Hill. Alas, the president’s Twitter feed remained stubbornly silent.
The hearing wore on. The appearance of Marco Rubio was met with a boo, which I realized came from me. Still, Rubio’s line of questioning was among the best, especially when he asked why Comey thought Trump’s not being under investigation was the only detail that hasn’t been leaked by the FBI in recent months. It became evident that Comey’s testimony wasn’t going to be legally damning, though it’s sure to provide Democrats with an armory of political ammunition. An FBI director calling an American president a liar…the DNC can lay off its entire ad department.
Back at Union Pub, people were starting to filter out; they were replaced by TV cameramen, one of whom appeared with a journalist from German TV to interview the guy to my left, dooming me to haunt the background of some three-second sound bite in Bavaria. Others converged on the bar, determined not to let a teetotaling president inflict his awful habits on them, as journalists with notepads darted to and fro. Many were interns, college students still at the glorious age where they can functionally drink at 10:30 a.m., a luxury that departed me long ago. A couple of them told me they’d been given the day off for this, truly the Super Bowl of C-Span. Next to me, the German TV crew was almost instantaneously replaced by another TV crew. I decided to break the rules and pay for a drink.
In between waving, shouting, and doing everything short of firing off a bottle rocket to get the harried bartender’s attention, I started recording a list of excuses people told me they’d used to take off work and come drink: sick day, doctor’s appointment, out of town, doctor’s note again—is any employer falling for this? As with kickball, theology lectures, pottery classes, and networking, Washington turned this dramatic event in our political history into an excuse to imbibe. One guy told me he “drank a fucking sink-ton” in the Navy and wasn’t about to stop now. Then, suddenly, a glimmer of hope: word went out that the president had sent a tweet! Alas, it was a false alarm and I charged my Goose Island to my credit card. After a line of questioning from John McCain that intimated he was far more inebriated than I was (“President Comey”), the hearing ended and Comey retreated with the senators to a smattering of applause from the bar.
If you’re ever on Capitol Hill, Union Pub is not a bad pit stop to make, especially if, like me, you can’t abide Tortilla Coast and you’re old enough to bear scars from Hawk and Dove’s less, er, refined days. The walls are mahogany, the beer selection is ample, and the dim lighting evokes the appropriate atmosphere of mild disrepute. It’s the sort of place that will serve you cheap hops and not throw you out if they catch you heckling Al Franken as he walks by, and they quickly compensated for the president’s inexcusable Twitter silence by distributing a free round: America beer in camo bottles, what else?
Bottoms were turned up, the chatter crescendoed again, only for several voices to yell for quiet after noted A-list celebrity Senator Mark Warner appeared on TV. Only you, Capitol Hill. Only you.