WASHINGTON: James Comey may stand at the center of a political maelstrom, but the ousted FBI chief turned nemesis of the president did not flinch as he laid down devastating accusations against Donald Trump.
With the eyes of the world upon him, the former top investigator was a paragon of self-control from the moment he walked into the hearing room on Thursday morning.
His face was frozen in a neutral, impenetrable gaze as he swore to tell the truth, then sat ramrod straight for nearly three hours of riveting testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Comey was an island, alone at the witness table, grilled by 17 senators including some who no doubt see their careers rising or falling on the fate of the investigation into Russian election meddling, and possible collusion with Trump associates.
One by one, he delivered blistering -- and potentially very damaging -- details about interactions with his former boss, accusing the president of sacking him because of the ongoing Russia probe.
And as Comey dropped his explosive revelations before a stunned audience, including millions tuning in on television and digitally around the world, the testimony took on a tone of personal revenge by a man reportedly branded a "nutjob" by the president himself.
Using extraordinarily blunt language, Comey accused the White House of "lies" and defamation in the wake of his shock ouster last month.
Seated at the center of the oak and marble hearing room, Comey rarely altered his enigmatic demeanor, appearing composed and inscrutable -- his eyelids at times his only visibly moving body parts.
Gasps rippled through the packed room when Comey revealed he had indirectly leaked to reporters key information from memos he had written about his Trump meetings.
Comey strikes an imposing figure; he stands six feet eight (2.03 meters) and walks as if he is late for a meeting. He often responded in crisp "No sir," or "Yes senator."
But when one senator asked why he did not push back at Trump's request for him to drop the probe into former national security advisor Mike Flynn, Comey dropped his all-business persona.
"Maybe if I were stronger, I would have," he acknowledged. "I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in."
Piece of history
Under intense questioning, the man of the moment ticked off a long list of questionable Trump actions, including a tweet that warned Comey had better hope there were no "tapes" made of their conversations.
"Lordy, I hope there are tapes," Comey quipped.
While the 56-year-old's reversion to soft colloquialism brought some snickers, the remark also underscored the gravity of the matter: it was audio tapes recorded in the White House that helped bring down president Richard Nixon during the 1970s Watergate scandal.
In another light moment, Comey's message was direct.
Asked about a dinner to which Trump invited him, Comey recalled how he had to break a date with his wife in order to attend.
"I love spending time with my wife and I wish I would have been there that night" instead of the White House, he said.
Rarely do Washington hearings draw such overwhelming interest. More than 300 observers lined up, some before 5 am, in a bid to snag one of the 88 seats reserved for the public.
"It's a piece of history and I wanted to be here for it," said one congressional staffer, who had been waiting since before dawn to witness a political theater unseen in decades on Capitol Hill.