Comey tests GOP loyalty to Trump

Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to Congress will be a deep test of Republican loyalty to President Trump.

Comey’s appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday may be the most dramatic hearing on Capitol Hill in decades.

It’s must-watch TV, and CBS and Fox announced Monday that they would carry the hearing live.

Republicans are unlikely to reflexively defend Trump, say Senate aides.


Nearly half of Americans surveyed last month by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal thought Trump fired Comey to slow down the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between his administration and Russia.

Instead, sources say to watch for GOP senators to press Comey on the details of his conversations with the president to determine whether improper pressure was brought on the FBI to drop a politically sensitive investigation.

“That is why the tone, the exact words that were spoken and the context are so important,” Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTop Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure Bill would honor Ginsburg, O'Connor with statues at Capitol The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands MORE (R-Maine), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” over the weekend.

A Senate GOP aide said committee Republicans are likely to take an independent line.

“The GOP members of the Intelligence Committee are interested in finding out what the truth is. That’s what you will see going into Thursday,” the aide said.

Another Republican aide predicted a variety of responses from senators to Comey’s testimony, depending on their varying degrees of loyalty to Trump.

“Some are going to be very deferential to Comey, some are going to be more confrontational. Some in the Republican Party will be cheering him on, pulling the ‘I told you so’ card, the never Trump-ers,” the aide said. 

The deposed FBI chief was fired by Trump in a shocker last month as he oversaw an investigation into the Republican’s presidential campaign.

He’s now the leading character in a special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, which includes whether there was any collusion between Moscow and Trump’s campaign.

Senators are sure to be thinking about 2018, when majorities in the House and Senate will be up for grabs.

Republicans are already nervously looking at the House landscape, where Democrats believe a path to the majority can be forged through districts held by Republicans that were lost or just narrowly won by Trump.

A Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll showed that Trump’s approval rating among Republicans has dipped below 75 percent.

In the Senate, the map favors Republicans, who are defending just eight seats compared with 25 for Democrats. Yet Republicans also only enjoy a two-seat majority, and Democrats are already targeting GOP Sens. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerDemocrat Jacky Rosen becomes 22nd senator to back bipartisan infrastructure deal 9 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2022 On The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare MORE (Nev.) and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE (Ariz.).

GOP strategists contacted by The Hill on Monday held different views on the best way for Republicans to handle the dramatic day.

“The best strategy is to call for an objective and fair assessment and investigation into all the facts,” said Whit Ayres, a GOP strategist who has advised Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioBreak glass in case of emergency — but not for climate change Democrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins Senators introduce bipartisan bill to expand foreign aid partnerships MORE (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Ayres noted that GOP senators largely won election last year running apart from Trump, which makes the case that independence is a good strategy.

Other Republican strategists say senators should be careful about handcuffing the party to the president while the results of the investigations are unknown.

“They owe loyalty to the Constitution of the United States of America,” said John Weaver, a former adviser to Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain to produce 'Don't Sweat the Small Stuff' Lifetime movie starring Heather Locklear An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Meghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' MORE (R-Ariz.), one of Trump’s most outspoken Republican critics in Washington.

Weaver, who worked for Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), one of Trump’s rivals during the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, said Republicans must be wary of carrying water for Trump.

“They need to not get in the way of any investigation or try to obfuscate,” he said. “We cannot handcuff ourselves to a guy who has no loyalty to the Constitution or the party, either.

“Don’t go out of your way to hinder an investigation into possible collusion with Russia or covering up any potential collusion with Russia.” 

Trump has few if any ardent defenders in the Senate — unlike in the House, where he can count on stalwarts such as Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.).

Some Senate Republicans praised Comey after his firing. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrSenate starts infrastructure debate amid 11th-hour drama The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill MORE (R-N.C.), who will be presiding over Thursday’s hearing, called Comey’s dismissal “a loss for the bureau and the nation.”

GOP senators often respond to Trump’s latest controversial tweets with exasperation or refuse to answer questions about him at all.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden sets new vaccine mandate as COVID-19 cases surge Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Trump takes two punches from GOP MORE (R-Ky.) said last month that he wants “less drama from the White House.”

While many Republicans don’t want to side with Trump over Comey or get bogged down in the middle of a controversy that might blow up later, they also won’t want to let Democrats score political points without pushback.

“They don’t want hyperbole; they don’t want politicization. They want truth and the facts. It’s going to be a very toxic environment,” said the GOP aide.

Senate Democrats will try to drive a wedge between GOP lawmakers and the Trump administration in order to divide the Republican Party and slow down its agenda.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenCalifornia Democrats warn of low turnout in recall election Pelosi disputes Biden's power to forgive student loans Warren hits the airwaves for Newsom ahead of recall election MORE (D-Mass.), who is viewed as a possible top-tier contender in the 2020 presidential election, has urged colleagues and liberal activists to ramp up pressure on Republican senators.

“We got to turn the heat up under Republicans,” she told activists at a meeting last week sponsored by the left-leaning group Credo.