Washington is consumed by anticipation this week ahead of an expected Capitol Hill appearance by James Comey, with speculation across town focused on whether the ousted FBI director’s remarks could further damage President Donald Trump.
Comey is expected to be peppered with questions during his planned appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday about reports Trump pressured him to shut down an FBI investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, which was part of a larger probe into Trump associates’ ties to Russian officials.
Comey hasn’t spoken publicly since Trump abruptly fired him on May 9, nor has he commented on a series of subsequent reports about his interactions with the president. In addition to the allegations about Flynn — who Trump fired in February amid questions about his relationship with Russian officials — news reports also said the president solicited a loyalty pledge from the then-FBI director. Comey, who reportedly did not make the pledge, is said to have kept detailed memos on the encounters.
Comey’s sworn testimony could confirm or discredit some of the most sordid elements of news reports surrounding Trump’s decision to fire him amid the Russia inquiry. It’s a dangerous prospect for the White House, which has already seen the controversy impede Trump’s agenda, sap his political capital and command inordinate attention from the West Wing.
Republicans and Democrats alike said they will try to pin Comey down on his interactions with Trump, which some critics of the president say could amount to obstruction of justice.
“We’ve known since Watergate rules of the road that the president shouldn’t intervene in an ongoing investigation. It would be unthinkable if the president actually did what was reported,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation.
Republicans on the committee are also eager to grill Comey about his meetings with the president. Sen. Susan Collins said she wants to understand the tone and tenor of the president’s questions to Comey about the Flynn probe.
“The tone, the exact words that were spoken and the context is so important,” Collins said on “Face the Nation.” “We can only get that by talking to those directly involved.”
The hearing is part of the Senate committee’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election, including allegations of collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign. The committee has issued subpoenas to Flynn and sent requests for information and testimony to other current and former Trump associates.
It’s possible Thursday’s hearing won’t live up to the hype it’s getting in Washington. It’s unclear how much Comey will be willing to reveal while a separate investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller is probing possible collusion between Trump associates and Russian officials.
There’s also some chance Comey won’t testify at all. White House aides have indicated Trump is weighing whether to assert executive privilege in hopes of blocking the testimony, though Democrats say that does not apply since Comey is no longer an executive branch official. Warner said Sunday he believed the White House had "backed off" the prospect of asserting executive privilege.
Adding to the Russia-related speculation in Washington, the Senate Intelligence Committee will hold a hearing a day earlier with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe and NSA Director Mike Rogers. The Washington Post reported last month that Trump asked Coats and Rogers to publicly deny any collusion occurred between Russian officials and Trump associates, and Warner indicated Sunday he intends to ask both men about those conversations.
It’s also the first public testimony from Rosenstein since he appointed Mueller as special counsel. Rosenstein briefed senators privately on the appointment, but he may be asked publicly for more details Wednesday. He could also be asked whether he will recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s investigation due to his role in Comey’s firing.
Warner said Sunday that the committee’s broader investigation into potential collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russian officials has turned up “a lot of smoke” but still “no smoking gun.” He said it was “strange” that Russian bots and paid Internet trolls appeared to target specific states and demographics in a way that could point to guidance from Americans, but he stopped short of agreeing with Hillary Clinton’s recent hints that collusion must have occurred. “I’m not where Secretary Clinton is,” he said, describing her remarks as “jumping to a conclusion.”
Few non-politicians have had more impact on Washington politics in recent years than Comey. He shocked the political establishment last July when he held a press conference to announce that, while Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her use of a private email server as secretary of state, her actions did not warrant criminal charges. He upended the presidential race again, 11 days before Election Day, when he informed Congress he was re-opening the Clinton email investigation, only to close it again several days later.
Comey captured the world’s attention again in March when he appeared before the House Intelligence Committee and announced that the FBI had been investigating since July whether Moscow coordinated with the Trump campaign in its efforts to sway the election.
“I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” Comey said during the March hearing. “That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russian efforts.”
This week, Collins said she intends to press Comey in particular about Trump’s assertion in his letter last month announcing the firing that Comey had assured the president three times that he was not the subject of any investigation.
“That phrase raises a lot of questions in my mind,” Collins said.