It’s almost showtime in Washington, DC. On Thursday, former FBI director James Comey will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee for the first time since he was fired in the midst of an ongoing investigation into a possible connection between Trump campaign officials and Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Comey’s opening remarks, already public, set the stage for an explosive hearing. He confirms a few pivotal, previously reported interactions: Yes, President Trump did request a loyalty pledge. Yes, he did ask Comey to let go of the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. And yes, Comey has the receipts (or, in this case, meticulously kept memos) for each of their nine one-on-one conversations. For political pundits and DC dwellers, it might as well be Christmas morning.
“This is the John Dean moment, if you want to compare it to Watergate,” says Nick Akerman, a former assistant special Watergate prosecutor, referring to the former White House counsel whose Senate testimony ultimately implicated President Nixon in the Watergate cover-up. “It’s going to be the first time the American public is going to hear what these conversations were about. Right now, we’re just getting it second-hand in press reports.”
The constant drip of anonymous leaks in the press, coupled with the reciprocal rebuttals and denials from the White House, have made the investigation a bit maddening to follow. Comey’s testimony could provide some clarity, if not sanity. Since you won’t want to miss it, here’s a handy primer to tomorrow’s senatorial showdown.
How do you watch?
Like the Dean hearing in 1973, Comey’s testimony will be must-see TV—only now you’ve got way more options than broadcast networks. Yes, ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox will all air the hearing when it begins at 10 am ET. It will also air on MSNBC and CNN. C-SPAN will cover it both on television, and on its website. Or check back here tomorrow, where we’ll have a live stream up and running.
And of course, if you’re interested in hearing what President Trump has to say about Comey’s testimony, check Twitter, where Washington Post reporter Robert Costa reports @realdonaldtrump may live-tweet.
How did we get here?
There’s no real “short version” of this, but we can try.
After months of rumors and news reports, then-FBI Director Comey confirmed at a Senate hearing in March that the FBI had been investigating the Trump campaign since July of 2016. On May 8, former acting attorney general Sally Yates, who Trump fired for refusing to uphold his travel ban, told a Senate subcommittee that she warned the Trump administration that Flynn hadn’t been truthful about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and was, therefore, compromised.
President Trump took to Twitter to call the investigation a “hoax” and a “taxpayer-funded charade.” The very next day, on May 9, he fired Comey unceremoniously, citing the FBI director’s unorthodox treatment of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. In his letter to Comey, President Trump thanked him for informing him “on three separate occasions” that he was not under investigation. The removal of Comey had little precedent, and sent shockwaves through DC.
In the meantime, the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia continued. Not only that, but the Justice Department selected former FBI director Robert Mueller as a special counsel in the matter. Wednesday, Trump nominated as FBI director Christopher Wray, a private sector lawyer with extensive Justice Department experience—including years working with both Mueller and Comey.
What will Comey say?
Comey’s opening statement corroborates several prior reports—in some cases, down to the precise language President Trump used.
He’ll testify that he first met then-president-elect Trump in person at Trump Tower in January, where he briefed the president on an intelligence community investigation into “Russian efforts to interfere with the election.” Comey notes the details of the intelligence were “salacious and unverified.” He is likely referring to a dossier published by Buzzfeed earlier this year, which asserted that Russia had thoroughly compromised Trump with both financial dependence and blackmail.
However, Comey will also acknowledge that he told Trump the FBI was not directly investigating him, supporting the claim Trump made in his letter firing Comey.
He will also confirm an NYT report that President Trump asked Comey to “let go” of the Flynn investigation. “I could be wrong, but I took him to be focusing on what had just happened with Flynn’s departure and the controversy around his account of his phone calls,” Comey will say. “Regardless, it was very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.”
Comey’s testimony also confirms reporting that he asked Sessions not to leave him alone with Trump, as well as the dinner conversation in which Trump asked Comey to pledge loyalty to him. It also includes additional details about a phone call in which Trump implored Comey to publicize the fact that he was not, personally, under investigation. Trump described the investigation as a “cloud” hanging over his administration, one he wanted Comey to lift. “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know,” Comey will testify Trump told him.
What questions remain?
The top question going into this week was whether President Trump did pressure Comey to drop the Russia investigation. Comey’s statement appears to confirm that he did. Less clear is whether Comey views these requests an effort on Trump’s part to obstruct justice. Senators will press Comey on whether he believes Trump had criminal intent in these moments, or whether he believes he was fired in an effort to thwart the investigation.
He will likely also face follow-up questions about his May 8 testimony, in which he said no members of the Justice Department had ever tried to halt the investigation.
Now that Comey’s conversations with the president are public, senators will also be interested in whether any other members of the Trump administration applied pressure to drop the investigation. That includes officials like Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, who reportedly tried to set up a backchannel with the Russian government during the presidential transition.
And of course, the committee may be curious about what Comey believes Trump meant when he said, “We had that thing you know.”
Following a cryptic day in Washington, in which Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency chief Mike Rogers refused to elaborate on their conversations with Trump—or offer any legal reasons why they were refusing—Comey day on Capitol Hill is poised to be a lot more enlightening. And frankly, it’s about time.