James Comey, the FBI Director President Trump fired, will appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday for the first time since he was sacked last month. Mr. Comey’s testimony has been highly anticipated in Washington. Front and center will be the question of whether Mr. Trump attempted to pressure Mr. Comey to back off of the FBI’s investigation into potential collusion between Mr. Trump’s campaign in Russia’s election meddling last year.
In prepared remarks, Mr. Comey affirmed President Trump’s claim that Mr. Comey told Mr. Trump that he was not under investigation. In his prepared remarks, Mr. Comey wrote:
“…I discussed with the FBI’s leadership team whether I should be prepared to assure President-Elect Trump that we were not investigating him personally. That was true; we did not have an open counter-intelligence case on him. We agreed I should do so if circumstances warranted. During our one-on-one meeting at Trump Tower,based on President-Elect Trump’s reaction to the briefing and without him directly asking the question, I offered that assurance.”
it is unlikely that Mr. Comey will reveal anything new that might signal where the Russia probe, now being led by former FBI Director Robert Muller, is going. Rather, Mr. Comey will address a series of awkward interactions with President Trump seemingly aimed at persuading Mr. Comey to curtail the FBI’s Russia probe.
Those conversations, which Mr. Comey memorialized in a series of memos to the file, have raised questions about whether Mr. Trump abused the power of his office to derail the FBI’s investigation. When Mr. Mueller was named as special council, the Justice Department authorized him to look into whether Mr. Trump broke any laws. Mr. Comey intends to simply report the facts Thursday and leave the legal judgements to Mr. Muller and others.
What we know
We do know that on several occasions over the past few months, Mr. Trump prodded Mr. Comey about the Russia investigation. News reports suggest that Mr. Comey grew increasingly disturbed about what he perceived as an attempt by Mr. Trump to pressure him. During a dinner with Mr. Comey early in his Presidency, Mr. Trump reportedly asked Mr. Comey if he had his loyalty. Mr. Comey promised only his honesty. In an Oval Office meeting with Mr. Comey, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other aides soon after National Security Advisor Michael Flynn resigned, the topic of the Russia investigation came up again. According to an account reportedly memorialized by Mr. Comey in a memo, Mr. Trump shooed everyone out of the room and, once alone with Mr. Comey, asked if he could move past the investigation into Flynn. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” According to a New York Times report, Mr. Comey grew concerned enough that he asked Attorney General Sessions to ensure that Mr. Comey was never alone in the room with Trump.
The FBI occupies an odd political space. Independent by nature, the FBI walls itself off from the White House when it comes to politically sensitive investigations. While the FBI Director serves at the pleasure of the President, he doesn’t take orders from him when it comes to the conduct of investigations, certainly not ones involving the President’s own campaign. Mr. Trump’s overtures to Mr. Comey disregarded the traditional arms-length relationship between White House and FBI. On their own they don’t rise to the level of criminal obstruction of Justice, but the pattern of conversations fall into a grey area.
What lawmakers want to ask Mr. Comey Thursday is whether there’s more to the story. Were there more forceful efforts on the part of Mr. Trump than has been previously reported. For example, did Mr. Trump suggest that Mr. Comey should stop investigating Russia or lose his job? There is no indication from what we know so far that this is the case. But, the Committee wants to question Mr. Comey so they can assess just how closely Mr. Trump walked up to that line.
In a sign of the high-stakes nature of Thursday’s hearing, the White House considered invoking executive privilege in a bid to prevent Mr. Comey from testifying. An extraordinary step that it probably didn’t have the power to take. It later rejected the idea.
Mr. Comey’s firing continues to be a rolling nightmare for the White House. Mr. Comey’s on the record accounting of events and the memos he wrote meticulously recording them Thurday could be a make or break moment for the White House. When a reporter asked Mr. Trump if he had anything to say to Mr. Comey in advance of the hearing, the President said simply, “I wish him luck.”