The key players to watch at Comey’s hearing today

The key players to watch  at Comey’s hearing today
© Greg Nash

The eyes of the nation will be on the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday as it questions fired FBI Director James Comey about the circumstances surrounding his dismissal last month.

The panel’s investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election has been widely seen as one of the more serious bipartisan inquiries into the matter — and the one most likely to provide a public accounting of what did and didn’t happen.

That investigation has grown to include scrutiny of Comey’s dismissal, which President Trump has said was linked to the FBI’s investigation into his campaign and Russia.

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A handful of members of the panel have loomed large in shaping the direction of the probe, both publicly and behind closed doors.

Reflecting the widespread interest in Comey’s testimony — which will be covered live on network television — even some ex officio members of the panel will take their seats to lob questions.

Here are the lawmakers to watch during Thursday’s hearing.  

 

Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrTrump moves to boost Ted Budd in North Carolina Senate race Texas Democrat Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson announces retirement at end of term On The Money — IRS chief calls for reinforcements MORE (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley — Presented by Connected Commerce Council — Incident reporting language left out of package Language requiring companies to report cyberattacks left out of defense bill Democrats see Christmas goal slipping away MORE (D-Va.)

Burr and Warner have carefully cultivated an image of bipartisanship as they have carried out the probe, insisting that they will follow the facts wherever they lead.

But Warner has been unquestionably more explicit in expressing his concerns with Trump’s actions, and onlookers will be watching to see if they present a united front on Thursday.

During a separate hearing on Wednesday, Burr backed up a clearly frustrated Warner when senior intelligence officials repeatedly declined to answer questions about reports that Trump had asked them to either counter or impede the federal investigation into Russia.

Their refusals outraged Democrats — who at one point drew a rebuke from Burr for talking over witnesses.

But at the close of the hearing, Burr issued his own warning to National Intelligence Director Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsAn independent commission should review our National Defense Strategy Overnight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens Former national security officials warn antitrust bills could help China in tech race MORE, National Security Agency (NSA) head Mike Rogers, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

“At no time should you be in a position where you come to Congress without an answer,” Burr said.

“It may be in a different format but the requirements of our oversight duties and your agencies demand it,” he said.

 

Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate confirms Biden's nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection Hillicon Valley — Presented by Connected Commerce Council — Incident reporting language left out of package Language requiring companies to report cyberattacks left out of defense bill MORE (R-Maine) and James Lankford (R-Okla.)

Collins, a centrist who often criticizes the president, and Lankford, a junior senator who has emerged as one of the leading public voices on the probe, will be the moderate GOP voices to watch on Thursday.

Both have been publicly outspoken about wanting to follow the facts of the Russia investigation wherever they lead — and to uncover the truth behind a variety of press leaks that suggest Trump may have tried to influence or curtail the FBI probe in some way.

“The acting director of the FBI also said that there has not been an attempt to influence the investigation. And yet we hear about these memos to the file, all of these dinners and meetings between President Trump and the former FBI director,” Collins said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “So, we need to hear directly from Mr. Comey on these important issues.”

 

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio calls on Airbnb to delist some properties in China's Xinjiang region Democrats seek to avoid internal disputes over Russia and China GOP senators introduce bill targeting Palestinian 'martyr payments' MORE (R-Fla.)

Rubio has already signaled that he’s keenly interested in any whiff of executive interference in the federal investigation.

On Wednesday, he pressed Rogers on media reports that Trump asked him to intercede in the Russia investigation — implicitly dinging the president in the process. 

“If what is being said to the media is untrue, then it is unfair to the president of the United States. And if it is true, that it is something the American people deserve to know,” Rubio said Wednesday.

While Rogers demurred, Comey’s already-released outline of his meetings with Trump shows none of the same hesitation. 

Rubio, who has at times been critical of Trump, is also one of the most outspoken committee voices on Moscow.

In January, he joined with a group of Democrats and Republicans to introduce legislation that would impose new sanctions on Russia for its election interference and other destabilizing activities.

 

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainDole to lie in state in Capitol Rotunda Bob Dole: A great leader of the 'Greatest Generation' The bully who pulls the levers of Trump's mind never learns MORE (R-Ariz.)

McCain, one of Trump’s fiercest critics on Capitol Hill, has long sounded the alarm over Russian election interference and the president’s positive statements about Russian President Vladimir Putin. McCain is also one of the Republicans leading a push for legislation that would boost sanctions on Moscow.

The senator has expressed concerns about reports that Trump asked intelligence officials to push back on the FBI’s Russia investigation.

Following revelations that Trump asked Comey to let go of the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, McCain said the events had reached the point “of Watergate size and scale.”

Immediately after Comey’s firing, McCain expressed disappointment and renewed a push for a special congressional committee to investigate Russian election interference.

McCain is an ex officio member of the Intelligence Committee in his role as Armed Services Committee chairman, and as a result is invited to attend. The Arizona lawmaker confirmed to CNN earlier this week that he would question Comey.

 

Sen. Angus KingAngus KingExporting gas means higher monthly energy bills for American families Amazon, Facebook, other large firms would pay more under proposed minimum tax, Warren's office says Senators look to defense bill to move cybersecurity measures MORE (I-Maine)

If Wednesday’s hearing is any indication, King is likely to pepper Comey with questions about his interactions with Trump.

King, one of the few independents in the Senate, fumed at intelligence officials Wednesday over their refusal to answer questions about whether the president tried to interfere in the FBI’s Russia investigation.

He has previously said the allegations about Trump’s efforts to push back against the FBI’s investigation into Flynn, if confirmed, would border on obstruction of justice.

“If that’s true and confirmed, I think you’re getting very close to the legal definition of obstruction of justice,” King told CNN in May.

Comey in his testimony will state that Trump asked him to “let go” of the probe into Flynn in February.

 

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)

This freshman ex-prosecutor and rising Democratic star is a particularly tough questioner who, last week, expressed disappointment with the slow pace of the Russia investigation thus far.

“We are reviewing binders and binders of documents, and we have a great group of folks who are working on that. But certainly I do become a bit impatient with the case, I do believe we need to pick it up,” she told The San Diego Union Tribune.

Harris had a brief turn in the spotlight during Wednesday’s hearing, when she was stopped mid-question by Burr when pressing Rosenstein to give a yes-or-no answer to a question.

“Would the senator suspend?” Burr said. “The committee is on notice to extend the courtesy for questions to get answered.”