National Security

What to watch for in Comey’s testimony


Former FBI Director James Comey will make his first public appearance since being fired by President Trump on Thursday.

The Senate Intelligence Committee raised the curtain on the hearing by publishing Comey’s opening statement on Wednesday afternoon, detailing his interactions with Trump ahead of his firing at the height of the bureau’s investigation into Russian election interference.

Now that Comey’s opening statement is out, here are the major storylines to watch for during his testimony, inside the hearing room and out.

What questions will Comey face — and who will ask the tough ones?

Lawmakers are sure to fire a range of questions at Comey covering details of the Russia probe and the circumstances of his firing — including any pressure he felt in relation to investigations into Russia and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

{mosads}Comey’s opening testimony sets the stage for the hearing by detailing four of his nine conversations with the president.

Lawmakers are likely to focus on concerns Comey had about his conversations with Trump — and whether he believes Trump’s actions amounted to obstruction of justice.

Comey is a controversial figure who has irked members of both parties, and he could face tough questions from a number of senators on the panel.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an ex officio member of the committee, is expected to participate in the hearing and is likely to be a major player.

McCain has been one of Trump’s staunchest GOP critics in Congress and has expressed disappointment over Comey’s firing. 

How Comey handles questions of obstruction of justice

Some Democrats have argued that Trump’s conversation with Comey about Flynn — which Comey will publicly acknowledge in his testimony — could signal obstruction of justice.

Comey’s opening statement confirmed that Trump asked him to “let go” of the investigation into Flynn’s ties to Russia and communicated his expectation of “loyalty” in separate conversations.

Legal experts note that questions about this could put Comey in a tricky position. If he was concerned about his conversations with Trump, they note, lawmakers may ask why he did not speak out about it or report it to the Justice Department or Congress.

In his opening statement, Comey appears to anticipate that line of questioning by explaining that he “discussed the matter with FBI senior leadership” after the February meeting.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has already signaled his concern.

“The question for West Virginians is, ‘If you knew, or you thought that there was obstruction of justice, why didn’t you act on it?’ ” he told CBS on Monday. “What were his concerns, and if there were deeper concerns, why wasn’t anything done at that time?”

Bill Jeffress, a Washington-based lawyer at Baker Botts LLP, said he suspects lawmakers will focus on the in-person exchange between Comey and Trump about Flynn, which occurred in February, after Trump asked Vice President Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to step out of the room at the end of a meeting.  

“I expect the senators are going to focus in on what occurred in that meeting,” Jeffress said. “Any criminal defense lawyer will tell you that asking the attorney general and the vice president to leave the room before speaking to Comey about Flynn is a red flag.” 

Comey’s answers to questions about the
Russia investigation

Comey delivered his last blockbuster congressional testimony in March, confirming that the FBI was investigating Russian election interference, which includes exploring any links or coordination between associates of Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

Comey refused at the time to divulge much about the investigation beyond its existence, citing the ongoing nature of the probe. A similar scenario played out before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May, days before he was fired.

Lawmakers are likely to have some questions about the direction of the ongoing — and possibly broadening — investigation. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and one of his senior advisers, for example, is now reported to be under scrutiny.

Comey has not spoken publicly since John Brennan, CIA director under the Obama administration, disclosed that he had seen contacts between the Trump campaign and Moscow that worried him in regard to possible collusion.

The federal probe is now being led by former FBI head Robert Mueller, who was appointed as special counsel by the Justice Department amid outcry over Comey’s firing.

Law experts say Comey will likely limit his testimony so as not to say anything to hamper Mueller’s ongoing investigation.

“I’m confident that Comey and Mueller have agreed on some strict parameters so that Comey doesn’t compromise the investigation, though Comey would have been unlikely to discuss details of the investigation anyway,” Matthew Waxman, a Columbia Law professor, said. 

Donald Trump’s reaction

One major player in Comey’s hearing won’t be in the room — Trump himself.

No stranger to off-the-cuff outbursts, Trump has taken to Twitter to call the Russia investigation “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history” and to warn Comey about leaking to the press following his firing.

Trump is scheduled to speak before a conference of religious conservatives around 12:30 p.m., likely during the height of Comey’s testimony — giving the president an opportunity to comment on what he has told lawmakers so far.

There is also speculation that Trump could live tweet the hearing.

Doug Heye, a former communications aide to ex-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), doesn’t expect Trump to keep quiet.

“I think the only thing we can be certain of is there will be some kind of reaction by Donald Trump, and it will be loud,” Heye said.

Trump’s goal, Heye observed, will likely be two-pronged — aimed at projecting his opinion and discrediting whatever Comey tells the committee.  

The media circus

The media coverage itself is set to be groundbreaking, with the possibility of Comey offering the most dramatic congressional testimony in recent years.

ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and Fox News have announced that they will air the Capitol Hill hearing live, and CNN has been counting down to the hearing for several days.

Bloomberg News has also partnered with Twitter to live stream Comey’s appearance on the social media platform.

Comey is no stranger to bombshell announcements. It was less than three months ago that the FBI chief publicly confirmed the investigation into links between Trump’s campaign and Moscow before Congress.

He also put himself at the center of the controversy last year surrounding the investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server by publicly announcing that the bureau would not recommend charges against her — only to disclose days before the presidential election that the FBI was reviewing new emails in the probe.

Tags Donald Trump Eric Cantor Hillary Clinton Jeff Sessions Joe Manchin John McCain
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