What is John McCain talking about?

Inside the most perplexing exchange in the entire Comey hearing.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday had no shortage of dramatic revelations. But the single most confusing moment in the three-hour televised hearing came near the end, when Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) asked a series of questions that made absolutely no sense.

McCain appeared to be trying to establish that Comey had given preferential treatment to 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton over her opponent at the time, Donald Trump. Comey’s FBI investigated Clinton’s use of a private email server and ended the inquiry without issuing an indictment; the bureau is still looking into allegations that members of Trump’s campaign conspired with the Russian government to sabotage the American electoral system.

In an apparent attempt to make the case that Comey has a double standard when it comes to Clinton and Trump, McCain repeatedly asked why the former FBI director stopped scrutinizing one but not the other. The obvious answer, as Comey laid out, is that Trump and Clinton were persons of interest in two entirely different investigations, conducted at different points in time.

“In the case of Hillary Clinton, you made the statement that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to bring a suit against her, although it had been very careless in their behavior [sic], but you did reach a conclusion in that case that it was not necessary to further pursue her,” said McCain at the start of his allotted questioning time. “Yet at the same time, in the case of Mr. Comey [sic] you said that there was not enough information to make a conclusion. Tell me the difference between your conclusion as far as former secretary Clinton is concerned and Mr. Trump.”

“The Clinton investigation was a completed investigation that the FBI had been deeply involved in,” Comey replied. “So I had an opportunity to understand all the facts and apply those facts against the laws as I understood them. This investigation was under way, still going, when I was fired.”

But McCain pressed ahead regardless, seemingly failing to grasp the fact that Clinton and Trump were not being examined as part of the same FBI inquiry. His reasoning for continuing down this line of questioning is impossible to summarize, so here it is verbatim:

Well, at least in the minds of this member, there’s a whole lot of questions remaining about what went on, particularly considering the fact that as you mentioned, it’s a, quote, big deal, as to what went on during the campaign. So I’m glad you concluded that part of the investigation, but I think that the American people have a whole lot of questions out there, particularly since you just emphasized the role that Russia played. And obviously, she was a candidate for president at the time. So she was clearly involved in this whole situation where fake news — as you just described it — big deal took place. You’re going to have to help me out here. In other words, we’re complete, the investigation of anything that former secretary Clinton had to do with the campaign is over and we don’t have to worry about it anymore?

“With respect to Secretary — I’m not — I’m a little confused, Senator,” Comey replied. “With respect to Secretary Clinton, we investigated a criminal investigation in connection with her use of a personal email server.”

“I understand,” McCain replied.

But the senator then persisted for several more minutes to ask how Clinton could have been cleared already despite an ongoing investigation into Trump’s campaign. You can watch the entirety of the exchange below:

UPDATE: Speaking to reporters after the hearing, McCain attempted to clarify what he was saying during his exchange with Comey. But his clarification made as little sense as his original questions.

“I was saying that in the case of the investigation of former Secretary Clinton’s involvement, he examined it, said it was over and it was done,” said McCain. “In the case of President Trump’s involvement, there’s more shoes to drop, there’s more investigations. What’s the difference? It’s over the same issue.”

It’s not over the same issue, as anyone with even a cursory understanding of the two investigations knows. Which might be why McCain clarified his clarification with a written statement issued a few minutes later.

In defense of his questioning, he suggested it “went over people’s heads” and joked, “Maybe going forward I shouldn’t stay up late watching the Diamondbacks night games.”

According to this statement, McCain was trying to ask Comey why the former FBI director was so reticent to say whether Trump had committed obstruction of justice, even though he was willing to condemn Clinton for her use of a private email server in his statement announcing there would be no indictment.

“I still believe this question is important, and I intend to submit it in writing to Mr. Comey for the record,” said McCain.