WASHINGTON — Motorists stopped on the street in amazement, wondering if a celebrity was visiting the humble Shaw’s Tavern in a hip neighborhood of Washington Thursday morning.
“Who’s inside?” said one man, who had pulled over his car to call out to the crowd of hundreds of people wrapped around the block.
The answer he received was disappointing: No celebrities. No glitz and glamour. Just a live CNN feed of a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing featuring fired FBI director James Comey.
Washington was transformed Thursday into a Woodstock for the politically obsessed, a city of political operatives, lawyers, and policy nerds tuned to fever pitch at the spectacle of Donald Trump’s alleged interference in a criminal investigation of his campaign. The testimony was impossible to avoid on TVs from the Capitol to Georgetown to suburban Virginia, where the banks of the Potomac River are lined with office towers filled with defense contractors and lobbyists.
Washingtonians — in a young, driven, type-A town — are used to gathering at bars, to network or to make up nerdy political names for trivia night. But to watch the latest grave political drama unfold in the pre-noon hours? That’s unusual.
Younger partisans on both sides seemed more comfortable with an irreverent approach, celebrating a post-modern Watergate that is unfolding in real time on Twitter.
Big screens were set up in bars, neighborhood restaurants, and coffee shops, with some watching from windows on the street. At Union Pub near Capitol Hill, a line of eager patrons snaked for blocks, as bar managers promised bourbon shots for every time Trump tweeted during the Comey hearing. (Surprisingly, Trump showed uncharacteristic social-media restraint, and the free bourbon, alas, never materialized.)
Moscow Mules and white Russians were the drinks of the day. Coffee shops on Florida Avenue, an entertainment district north of the Capitol, piped in live audio for the session. At Shaw’s Tavern, which called its event a “Comey hearing Covfefe,” many lined up more than an hour before the hearing began — some with Comey-themed shirts.
“Any excuse to drink and make fun of Trump is one I have to take,” screamed one woman, who was wearing an FBI T-shirt for the occasion.
“It’s not that we're out here to see blood,” said Sylvia Krohn, a 25-year-old public health worker. “It’s the same thing as the Super Bowl. You want to see your side do well.”
Bridget Black, a recent Villanova alumna, was the first person to arrive at Shaw’s. Black donned a shirt that had former president Barack Obama’s face reprinted dozens of times. Her friend Stephanie Williams wore one dedicated to the former vice president, Joe Biden.
“I’m here because I want to continue to witness history,” Black said. “Plus, this is fun.”
Fun. That was the buzzword for most patrons at Shaw’s, as they sipped mimosas, morning beers, and specially made Russian vodka drinks. When Comey, in his opening statement, said Trump lied about their interactions and about the FBI, the crowd roared with approval.
“It’s just a great D.C. experience, one of those D.C. bubble things,” said Hannah Dennis, an incoming senior at American University. “It kind of feels like a sporting event. People are that involved and engaged.”
At Royal Cafe, another popular gathering place in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, Comey’s line about missing a date with his wife in order to have dinner with the president was particularly popular. In the front room of the establishment, where chairs had been cleared out to accommodate the overflow of people, there were audible “oohs” and “ahhs" during an intense line of questioning between Comey and Republican Senator Marco Rubio.
However, the jovial atmosphere made some people uncomfortable, considering the serious nature of the topic. Russian influence in an American presidential election, they said, should not be reduced to background fodder for a meal with friends
“This isn't a wrestling match,” said one woman. “It’s good that people cared, but this may be too much.”
Emily Josef, a law student in Boston who is working in D.C. for the summer, had a similar view.
“Yes people care [in D.C.] and are more aware of politics, but it’s more about the drama of the whole thing, not the substance,” she said.
Outside the bar, Grace Ahearn, who was still waiting to get in, took a different perspective.
“The implications of this can be so serious, so I feel like it’s important to approach this with a sense of humor,” said Ahearn, a recently graduate of American University.
In addition to the horde of thirsty local millennials, brunching over booze and bureaucracy, there were those from out of town. Julie and Ken Karlock, a couple from Columbus, Ohio, came to Shaw’s during a weeklong trip to D.C.
Friends back in Ohio had urged them attend the “covfefe,” the now popular non-word that went viral when Trump mistyped a tweet.
“I wasn’t expecting this many people,” Julie Karlock said, as she surveyed the dozens ahead of her in line.
That couple, like many others, ended up leaving before they could enter the bar.
By the time the hearing began, more than 50 people were still waiting, eager to get a seat inside. Some strained to look through the windows, contorting themselves to get a glimpse of Comey, the unlikely man of the hour.
As President Trump once mused, he’d “become more famous” than Trump himself.Astead W. Herndon can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH