Fired FBI Director James Comey comes before Congress on Thursday with the power to plunge Donald Trump’s presidency even deeper into crisis.
Trump ousted Comey on May 9, amid an investigation into whether the president’s associates aided a Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. And on Wednesday, Comey described for the first time a series of uncomfortable interactions — in the months before his firing — in which Trump nudged Comey to publicly absolve him of any connection to the Russia probe. According to Comey’s prepared testimony, the president also demanded loyalty and asked Trump to go easy on Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser, who is under FBI investigation.
Since Comey’s departure, the White House has become increasingly consumed by the Russia investigation, and Comey’s testimony presents the most perilous moment yet for the Trump administration.
For the first time since his firing, Comey will speak publicly on Thursday about the unfolding crisis. Here are five things to watch as he faces the Senate Intelligence Committee:
1. Clamming up for the special counsel
Comey’s testimony comes amid a secretive and still-forming probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller, who was appointed by the Department of Justice to investigate potential crimes connected to the ongoing Russia probe. If there are details Comey withheld from his prepared testimony, it’s possible he’s deferring to the special counsel’s probe to avoid any interference. It’s also unclear what Mueller’s apparent comfort with Comey testifying publicly means about the direction of his probe.
“I have not included every detail from my conversations with the President, but, to the best of my recollection, I have tried to include information that may be relevant to the Committee,” Comey wrote in his seven-page written testimony.
Comey’s detailed accounts of interactions with Trump were eye-opening for their level of detail, which he says he logged in contemporaneous memos. But it’s unclear whether he’ll diverge from the statement to reveal more details about the FBI’s broader Russia investigation, or his other interactions with Trump and members of the president’s team.
For now, it appears there’s been little coordination between the Senate Intelligence Committee and Mueller. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the committee’s top Republican, and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, say they haven’t discussed separate “lanes” for their parallel investigations, nor have they been waved off of pursuing any particular avenue of inquiry.
But acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — pushed on the matter during a separate hearing on Wednesday — at times declined to answer, pointing to the special counsel’s ongoing investigation.
2. Answering for previous testimony
Comey is going to have to square his remarks Thursday with his previous statement — delivered under oath at a previous congressional hearing — that he hadn’t been dissuaded from any investigation by the Justice Department throughout his career.
“I’m talking about a situation where we were told to stop something for a political reason, that would be a very big deal. It’s not happened in my experience,” Comey said in testimony on May 3. The answer, however, was in response to a question about whether the attorney general or senior Justice Department officials had tried to interfere. And Comey was speaking generally about his experience at the FBI, not specifically about the Russia probe.
A day after he was fired, McCabe said Comey’s firing hadn’t impeded the FBI’s work. “There has been no effort to impede our investigation today,” he said.
Trump’s defenders have leapt on both statements as evidence that Comey somehow changed his tune. Though neither man’s statement categorically ruled out interference from the president, Comey will be asked to mesh their statements with what he now claims occurred — and explain why he didn’t alert lawmakers to the issue sooner.
McCabe declined Wednesday to say whether Comey had discussed his concerns about Trump with him contemporaneously, repeatedly insisting that he would defer to Comey on the matter.
3. The Trump counterpunch
How long can Trump resist taking to Twitter to bash Comey midhearing? Even his aides can never be sure, and reports suggest Trump is going to be watching Comey’s testimony and prepared to respond.
Even if he stays silent, the prospect of a presidential smackdown from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue will hang over the hearing all morning — and possibly become grist for other ongoing investigative efforts.
The White House’s allies have made clear they want to cast Comey as a showboating lone ranger with limited credibility. But they also decided to trumpet one key detail from Comey’s pre-hearing testimony: that he informed Trump on multiple occasions that he was — at that time — not the subject of an FBI counterintelligence investigation.
Supporters of the president will have to walk the line between bashing Comey as untrustworthy while also presenting that element of his testimony as ironclad. Of note: Comey’s testimony ends with his last talk with the president on April 11 — there’s no indication about further investigative steps that may have occurred since. In addition, Comey notes that he was wary to publicly absolve Trump because if that ever changed, he’d be obligated to publicly announce it.
Trump’s lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, already offered the president’s interpretation of Comey’s testimony: “The President is pleased that Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the President was not under investigation in any Russian probe,” Kasowitz said in a statement. “The President feels completely and totally vindicated. He is eager to continue to move forward with his agenda.”
4. What do Senate Republicans do?
Burr has generally worked collaboratively with Democrats on the Senate intel panel. And Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have also expressed deep concern about the stream of revelations about Trump associates’ connections to Russia that have emerged in press reports and testimony.
What’s less clear is whether Trump will have any pit bulls defending him inside the hearing room. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) was on Trump’s shortlist to run the FBI before he pulled himself out of contention, and he has largely focused on leaks of classified information and dismissed a connection between Trump’s decision to fire Comey and the president’s desire to end the Russia investigation.
Cornyn told POLITICO on Wednesday that he had no specific advice for Trump during the hearing.
“I think we all want to hear what Director Comey has to say,” he said. “It could well be a nothingburger, or it could be something different, and we just need to hear from him directly.”
5. The other conversations
Comey revealed in his written testimony that he’s had nine one-on-one conversations with Trump — “three in person and six on the phone.” Yet he goes into detail about only five of those instances.
Senators are sure to ask Comey about the other conversations — their substance, their tone and their timing – to see whether they give a fuller picture of Trump’s posture toward his FBI director in those crucial months.
Comey says his last interaction with Trump came on April 11, a month before he was fired. If so, what might have transpired in the intervening weeks that led Trump to ax Comey at the moment he did?
Burgess Everett, Ali Watkins and Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.