Comey Hearing Pits Ex-FBI Chief Against Trump Over Russia Probes

  • Fired FBI head won’t say if Trump’s actions were obstruction
  • Comey will testify to Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday

Comey Said to Avoid Saying Trump Obstructed Justice

The question on everyone’s minds as James Comey testifies to the Senate is the one he doesn’t plan to answer: Did President Donald Trump try to obstruct a federal probe into his campaign’s ties to Russia?

The fired FBI director won’t say Thursday whether he thinks the president sought to derail the investigation, according to a person familiar with Comey’s thinking.

James Comey

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

But even though he will stop short of declaring his own views, Comey is expected to put the president’s conduct on public display. He will spell out several key conversations the two men had in the weeks before Trump dismissed him -- while Comey was heading up a probe into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, an inquiry that was already reaching into Trump’s inner circle.

The stakes couldn’t be higher: Comey’s actions during a separate inquiry last year helped undermine Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House. Now he could mortally wound -- or salvage -- Trump’s presidency.

In an effort to turn the page on Comey’s era at the FBI before he testifies, Trump said on Twitter Wednesday that he will nominate Christopher A. Wray as the bureau’s next director. Wray is a white-collar defense attorney and former Justice Department official whose selection won early praise even from some Trump critics.

Just as important as Comey’s opening statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee will be how cautiously -- or not -- he chooses his words in the hours of questioning that will follow. Democratic senators will minutely parse his answers to make the case that Trump obstructed justice. And Republicans, White House aides -- and maybe an agitated president with an itchy Twitter finger -- will do the same in an effort to minimize the damage.

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‘Really About Power’

"There is no doubt that this is extraordinary," said Jack Sharman, who served as special counsel to a congressional probe of President Bill Clinton in 1995. "This is really about power, its use and its potential misuse."

The Senate committee’s Republican Chairman Richard Burr said Comey has indicated it will be the only public hearing he plans to attend.

Trump has repeatedly derided the federal probes into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, including possible connections to his associates and relatives as “fake news,” a “witch hunt” and a “fabrication” by Democrats that has made the U.S. a laughing stock among nations.

Comey led those probes, refused to drop them when confronted by the president and was subsequently fired. After the White House gave shifting explanations for the dismissal, Trump said he fired the FBI chief for incompetence, adding he thought Comey was a “showboat” and a “grandstander.”

Comey has coordinated his testimony with Robert Mueller, another former FBI chief who’s now special counsel in charge of the Russian investigations, the person said. But that won’t necessarily stop him from divulging new details about his interactions with Trump, which could paint a picture for federal prosecutors or congressional investigators to build a case against the president.

A critical issue for senators will be what Trump said to Comey about a probe into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s activities. Flynn was fired just weeks into Trump’s presidency for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. A memo written by Comey after Flynn’s dismissal said the president asked him to ease up on the probe. That alone could be fodder for obstruction of justice charges, some legal experts said.

"I think Trump knew exactly what he was doing when he said you’ve got to back off investigating Flynn," said John Dean, the former White House counsel to President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. "I think he was trying to stop the investigation."

Comey, according to the memo first reported by the New York Times, demurred, and the probe continued. Lawmakers have vowed to obtain Comey’s memos.

For a QuickTake Q&A on the Trump-Russia probe, click here

Senators will also ask about Trump’s claim that Comey assured him on three separate occasions that he wasn’t the subject of any probe -- a statement that would be highly unusual coming from the head of the FBI.

And Comey is likely to be pressed on whether he shared his concerns about Trump’s questioning of the Russia probe with top Justice Department officials, instead of just writing them down in memos.

Even before the firing, no relationship in Washington was more complex than the one between Trump and Comey when the new president took office on Jan. 20. The former FBI director gave a boost to Trump’s campaign just days before the November election, when he announced he was reviewing new information concerning Democrat Hillary Clinton’s use of private email.

Trump, who had slammed Comey for closing the case without charges in July, had newfound praise for the move, saying it “took a lot of guts.” The president singled out the Federal Bureau of Investigation director at a White House event for law enforcement in January, saying the nation’s top law enforcement officer was “more famous than me” and later asked him to stay on to complete his 10-year term.

Trump’s Ire

But as the Russia probe ground on, the president fumed.

“FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!” Trump tweeted on May 2, a week before dismissing Comey. “The phony...Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election. Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign?”

During a White House photo opportunity with congressional leaders on Tuesday, Trump was asked by reporter if he had any message for Comey before his testimony.

“I wish him luck,” the president said.

Comey’s appearance will take place a day after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe and the heads of the National Security Agency and Office of the Director of National Intelligence testify to the same Senate panel. While that hearing is ostensibly on aspects of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the witnesses are expected to be asked about Russia, the election and Comey.

Clinton Probe

Comey’s plan on Thursday to lay out the details of his interactions with Trump, but to let lawmakers and the public reach their own conclusions about obstruction of justice, bears similarities to his approach to the initial findings in the Clinton probe.

Last July, Comey made the unusual decision to publicly announce his judgment that “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring a case against Clinton and her aides. But he excoriated the former secretary of state for her “extremely careless” behavior and said someone in her position should have known better.

Comey’s statement infuriated Democrats, who said he should have kept the criticism to himself, and Republicans, who wanted to see Clinton prosecuted. Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, in a memo the White House initially used to justify Comey’s firing, cited his public handling of the Clinton probe as undermining confidence in the FBI.

Clinton and her aides have said Comey’s actions undercut her campaign at a critical time, helping cost her the White House. But while the former FBI chief has said he thinks he made the right call, he conceded in early May that “It makes me mildly nauseous to think we might have had some impact on the election.”

Independent Streak

Given what is known so far, it might be hard to build a case against Trump for obstructing justice, said Sharman, the former special counsel.

"I would think he would be most comfortable relating the events, what happened when, who said what when and under what circumstances,” Sharman said of Comey.

But no one doubts that Comey will be candid. His independent streak and decades in Washington bureaucratic battles have given the six-foot-eight-inch tall Comey a reputation for speaking truth to power.

“I don’t expect Comey’s going to stumble,” Dean said. “He’s not going to try to please the White House.”

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