Old FBI allies at center of Comey’s public testimony

Former Justice Department officials and allies of James Comey say they expect the fired FBI director to be deeply respectful of the investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election when he testifies before a Senate panel on Thursday.

Comey has a long and trusted relationship with the man now in charge of running that investigation, special counsel Robert Mueller, and is likely to avoid disclosing anything that might influence that probe, the sources said. 

“Jim has enormous respect for Mueller, and I expect that that respect is reciprocated,” an associate of Comey’s told The Hill. “Jim will be incredibly focused on avoiding interfering with Mueller’s interests or inquiries in any way.”

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The two former directors have reportedly spoken to hammer out the contours of Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, anticipating that lawmakers will be keenly interested in both the evidence of possible collusion between President Trump’s campaign and Russia and the circumstances of Comey’s abrupt dismissal last month.

Mueller has reportedly given Comey the green light to speak to the committee, and according to Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Biden jumps into frenzied Dem spending talks GOP senators say Biden COVID-19 strategy has 'exacerbated vaccine hesitancy' Senate advances Biden consumer bureau pick after panel logjam MORE (R-N.C.), Comey told him that the “special counsel has not fenced him off in any way, shape or form on the items he intends to talk about.”

Comey’s interactions with Trump and his firing are at the crux of arguments that Trump may have sought to stifle the FBI’s investigation. One important interaction is a February meeting during which Trump reportedly asked Comey to “let go” of the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

How circumspect Comey is during his testimony could provide clues about the strength of the case Mueller is building, former officials say. While the consensus is that Comey will say little about the primary investigation into collusion with Russia, his testimony on his interactions with Trump could potentially provide some insight into a rumored obstruction of justice probe.

“[Comey] is going to be mindful of what Bob Mueller’s task is now and he’s not going to do anything to undermine it or damage it,” said Ron Hosko, a former assistant director at the bureau who worked under both men.

“If we see him giving the sense that he’s unbounded in what he has a willingness to say, that may be an indicator that Mueller doesn’t see an obstruction case there.”

The working relationship between Mueller and Comey can be traced back at least to 2003, when Mueller was at the helm of the FBI and Comey became deputy attorney general under John Ashcroft. The two worked elbow-to-elbow in the early and uncertain days of the post-9/11 war on terror.

Then, in 2004, Mueller backed up Comey in a dramatic standoff with the George W. Bush White House that almost ended in both men’s resignation — but cemented their reputations.

The White House was attempting to renew a controversial surveillance program Comey and Mueller believed was illegal. In a now-famous scene, Comey raced to the bedside of an infirm Ashcroft to prevent White House officials from getting him to sign off on reauthorizing the program.

When he arrived at the intensive care unit, Comey called Mueller and asked that he not let the Secret Service remove him from Ashcroft’s side “under any circumstances.” Mueller ordered Ashcroft’s FBI detail to prevent the Secret Service from removing Comey, keeping White House officials from being alone with the sick attorney general.

White House chief of staff Andrew Card and counsel Alberto Gonzales backed off that night — but the battle wasn’t over. In a private meeting with the president the morning after the showdown at the hospital, Bush reportedly tried to convince Comey to allow him to shoulder the responsibility for the reauthorization of the program.

After Mueller and Comey made clear they would resign over the issue, Bush told Mueller that the Justice Department should do whatever was necessary to put the program on legal footing.

The incident is often cited as evidence of Comey’s fierce willingness to speak truth to power — but the critical role played by Mueller is often overlooked.

“I knew that no one cared about losing a deputy attorney general,” Comey told the Washingtonian years later, during a subsequent stint in the private sector. “But no president could weather losing an FBI director.”

The Comey-Mueller relationship runs far deeper than the dramatic events of that night, associates say.

“I think the hospital incident should be taken as not just an experience they had together but a reflection of the degree of trust and expectations of integrity each had in the other,” the Comey associate told The Hill. “Those expectations would have been developed over the course of many matters.”

When the incident finally came to light — during a theatrical public account on Capitol Hill in 2007 — Comey gave a deeply personal avowal of the relationship to rapt lawmakers. Mueller, he said, “was very supportive to me personally.

“He’s one of the finest people I’ve ever met and was a great help to me when I felt a tremendous amount of pressure and felt a bit alone at the Department of Justice.”

Former officials are swift to argue that the personal relationship won’t influence Comey’s testimony.

“Over a decade ago, they were in the trenches together and probably saw themselves in the same foxhole together, certainly in that encounter,” Hosko said.

But, he said, “Do I think that personal loyalty is such that it would color what Jim Comey is about to testify to, to make his case stronger or less strong? I think these guys are both rule-of-law, straight-arrow boy scouts in their own ways.”

Former federal prosecutor Bob Ray said Comey’s testimony on his own dismissal probably won’t have that much impact on any potential obstruction of justice case.

Mueller already has the most important piece of evidence he needs, he said — the contemporaneous memos that Comey reportedly kept following his encounters with Trump.

“I think he has all that he needs, which is why he’s not making any effort to step in the way of Comey testifying,” said Ray, who was head of the Office of the Independent Counsel during the Whitewater investigation of Bill and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHeller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 MORE. “I wouldn’t say that the testimony is mere icing on the cake, but the memos are more important than the testimony from an investigative standpoint.”

Mark Zaid, an attorney who specializes in national security, echoed that assessment, arguing that the impact from Thursday’s hearing was likely to be strictly political.

“The takeaway for anyone would be Mueller is not concerned from a legal standpoint what Comey might say,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if people come away disappointed in the lack of how salacious his testimony might be.”