By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
For politically-oriented news junkies, this past Thursday featured must-watch fare. Former FBI Director James Comey raised his hand, took the oath, and testified about his carefully-documented meetings with his old boss, President Donald Trump. What stood out from his testimony was the number of times he called Trump a liar, by implication and, at times, using that actual word. Trump lied, according to Comey's testimony, about the disarray within the FBI, and in his many statements to the media denying that he had asked for Comey's loyalty and requested that he let go of the investigations into Michael Flynn's alleged collusion with Russia during the campaign. While the most conservative sources treated the testimony as nothing new, or perversely as a 'complete and total vindication' of Trump, everywhere else, the testimony was taken as a sensational indictment of Trump and his young presidency. Of course, it is high-stakes messaging for any witness. While Comey's bluntness raises his credibility before some audiences, it certainly lowers it before other audiences, potentially putting him in the category of the disgruntled ex-employee.
A parallel risk exists for witnesses in the courtroom or in the deposition chair. The question of whether someone else is lying is generally dangerous territory: an invitation to step outside the zone of your own knowledge, potentially reducing your credibility in the process. In Comey's case, that step is probably worth it. Either Comey or Trump is lying, and barring the appearance of any 'tape,' Comey has the oath and the contemporaneous notes on his side, and according to a recent YouGov poll, a mere 26 percent of the public trusts Trump more than Comey. But in the case of the typical fact witness, the statement that someone else is lying can be the proverbial 'bridge too far.' In this post, I'll share some ways that the more conventional witness ought to handle those questions with care.