Lawmakers Prepare to Question Comey
In advance of what many anticipate will be blockbuster testimony from ex-FBI chief James Comey on Thursday, the White House is on offense against the witness.
Presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway reminded NBC viewers Monday that Comey gave inaccurate information the last time he was under oath, adding that many Democrats "detested this man" until the president fired him.
The interview signaled ways in which the Trump administration and some Republicans might try to disparage Comey, who will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee later this week, his first public appearance since the controversial firing. But it also shines a spotlight on Democrats, who spent months criticizing Comey's judgment and blaming him for their presidential election loss, and now find him to be the most credible source yet in building their case against Donald Trump.
"You can take it to the bank that Jim Comey is going to testify in a way that helps Democrats," said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union.
On Monday, White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced the president would not assert his executive privilege to prevent Comey from testifying, "in order to facilitate a swift and thorough examination of the facts sought by the Senate Intelligence Committee." Legal experts had questioned Trump's ability to invoke that authority, however, given that he had publicly commented on Comey's firing. Plus, blocking the testimony would invite questions about whether the administration had something to hide.
The extent of Comey's remarks could be limited by special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe. But the former FBI director is expected to describe memos he wrote that reportedly detailed conversations in which the president allegedly asked Comey to drop the investigation into Trump’s onetime national security adviser, Michael Flynn. In one conversation, according to sources quoted by the New York Times, Trump asked for Comey's loyalty.
In an interview with NBC News after the firing, Trump mentioned the investigation into possible ties between his associates and Russian officials when explaining why he let Comey go, and he described the former director as a "showboat." The New York Times reported Trump called Comey a "nut job" in telling Russian officials in the Oval Office last month about the firing. Trump added to the controversy by suggesting he might have "tapes" of his conversations with Comey, though the White House has declined to confirm whether such recording occurs in the Oval Office.
It is unclear how detailed Comey will be in his testimony, or whether he will go so far as to describe the conversations as conditions for obstruction of justice. But the public confirmation of the memos will be newsworthy enough.
"If he simply goes before the hearing and repeats it in his own voice, it will be compelling and stirring, in and of itself," said Democratic strategist Brian Fallon, Hillary Clinton's former press secretary. "He doesn't need to break any new ground for this to be explosive and damning to Trump."
Democrats had been highly critical of Comey's actions and have said he damaged the credibility of the FBI after he announced just days before the election that he was reviewing additional emails in the case involving Clinton's private server. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi questioned whether Comey was right for the job. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said he lost confidence. Just last month, Clinton blamed Comey in part for her loss to Trump.
But Democrats have argued that by axing Comey in the middle of the investigation, the president raises new concerns. Their case has been bolstered by Republicans, who have also questioned the nature and timing of the firing.
"You can have your disagreements with ... his previous actions," said Fallon. "But nobody has suggested he made things up or lied. ... He is going to be very credible."
The conversations between Comey and Trump, and whether the former director believes the president tried to interfere with the Russia investigation, will be front and center at Thursday's hearing, which both cable channels and broadcast networks will carry live. But there are also issues Democrats could raise that show they aren't simply defending Comey or embracing him politically.
For example, Democrats could ask the former FBI director why he took the meetings with Trump in the middle of an investigation in the first place, or why he waited to flag his concerns. Democrats could also ask Comey about a report that he knew a piece of key information related to the investigation into Clinton's emails was false and put forth by the Russians. Democrats should treat the hearing as a "fact-finding mission," Fallon said, "and let the chips fall where they may."
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, vice chairman of the committee, will kick off the questioning from the Democrats. "I want to know what kind of pressure, appropriate or inappropriate, how many conversations he had with the president about this topic," Warner told CBS' “Face the Nation.” "Did some of these conversations take place even before the president was sworn in?"
West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who will participate in the questioning as a member of the committee, may demonstrate his independent streak. In an interview with CBS on Monday, he said his constituents want to know: "If you knew or if you thought there was obstruction of justice, why didn't you act on it?"
Congressional Republicans will likely have similar questions regarding the timing of Comey's memos and why he didn't share his concerns with members of Congress. Others have raised additional criticisms of the former director.
"I haven't frankly understood much of what Comey has done since about a year ago. His decisions have been highly questionable," said Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, also a member of the Intelligence Committee, in an interview with Fox News. Blunt said he wants to know more about the nature of Comey's meetings with Trump and how the director approached the interaction, given that he reportedly took copious notes afterward.
"Conservatives always been dubious of Jim Comey," Schlapp said.
Republicans have also noted that acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe recently testified there had been no attempts by the White House to interfere with the Russia probe.
Still, both Democrats and Republicans have wanted to hear from Comey, even if it meant bad news for the administration. Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins said the tone and exact wording of the conversations between Comey and Trump about the investigation of Flynn are key.
"If the president said, 'Look, I just fired the guy, I feel bad for him. What do you think's going to happen?' That's one thing," Collins told CBS. "If, on the other hand, the president said to Mr. Comey, 'I want you to end this investigation of General Flynn. I want it ended now. And if you don't do so, you're going to be in trouble,' that is a whole different nature of conversation."
The former FBI director's upcoming testimony may not be his last. The Senate Judiciary Committee has also requested at crack at Comey.