Americans love a good political drama, and former FBI Director James Comey, who will give his highly anticipated testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, has shown he can pull one off. In 2007, Comey delivered a gripping performance when he told the Senate Judiciary Committee that as deputy attorney general he had led a revolt of senior Justice Department and FBI officials against President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program, significantly limiting its scope. Comey described rushing to Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital bedside in 2004 to block two senior administration aides who sought to persuade Ashcroft to reauthorize the wiretapping program, which Comey thought violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. (Comey was accompanied on that urgent mission by Robert Mueller, then the director of the FBI, now the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.) Comey’s testimony cemented his image as a nonpartisan ex-prosecutor who refused to be cowed by the White House’s power and instead stood up for what he thought was right and lawful. Comey came to embody the fearless truth-teller, beholden to his conscience above all else.
But a more apt precedent for Comey’s upcoming congressional appearance may be Nixon White House counsel John Dean’s explosive testimony during Watergate, even though Watergate and the FBI’s Russia probe are more dissimilar than alike. While impeachment still seems a liberal dream given Republican control of Congress, Dean’s appearance was the last time a high-ranking official offered direct testimony about his conversations with a president. And like Dean, Comey is expected to give evidence suggesting that a president sought to impede an FBI investigation — and perhaps implicating the president in a series of lies that seemed aimed at covering up incriminating actions.
We know at least some of what Comey will say, based on the release of his prepared testimony Wednesday afternoon. Much of it confirms what was already reported — that President Trump asked Comey for a pledge of “loyalty,” and to go easy on his fired aide Michael Flynn. But much more may come out in his answers to questions from the committee members. Here are four areas to watch for:
Obstruction of justice: ABC News is reporting that Comey won’t actually say Trump obstructed justice. But how does Comey characterize Trump’s efforts to impede Russia-related probes into his administration? What spin does Comey put on what Trump was trying to tell him in their conversations, as reported in articles sourced to Comey’s close associates — especially Trump’s pressing Comey to give the president his “loyalty”? How does Comey interpret Trump’s urging him to drop the Flynn probe? Will Comey, a former prosecutor who has investigated countless criminal matters over the years, suggest that Trump’s words and actions during their meetings crossed a line? Was it ethical? Was it legal?
Don’t forget that Comey’s reputation has taken a real hit over the past year. He was, after all, the man who in dramatic fashion held a surprise press conference in which he announced that the FBI was not recommending criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server as secretary of state. But even while exonerating Clinton, Comey blasted her handling of classified information as “extremely careless.” Will he be as acidic in his assessments of Trump’s handling of the FBI’s Russia-related investigations?
Memos and tapes: Firing a shot in Comey’s direction, Trump, soon after firing him, tweeted that Comey should hope no tapes of their conversations surface. Comey has confirmed reports that he kept detailed notes of his conversations with Trump — something he didn’t do, for example, after speaking with President Obama. One possible line of questioning: Why did he feel the need for these records? Was he thinking that he had to write them down because he may have witnessed a crime? Furthermore, does Comey think it’s possible that Trump was taping their conversations?
Dialing things down: Comey’s opening statement released Wednesday had some intriguing hints but may fall short of a smoking gun. What if Comey does not live up to the hype and fails to deliver the kind of bombshell testimony that some observers are anticipating? Relatedly, it’s well worth watching what Republicans do. Will they flay Comey as, in Trump’s words, “a showboat”? Senators will press him on why he did not resign after Trump pressured him to pledge his loyalty and drop the Flynn matter. How does Comey respond?
Burnishing his own image: How does Comey defend himself from charges that have been leveled at him over the past year? Why does he think that he was fired? Was it true, as Trump has stated, that Comey three times assured Trump that the president was in no way a target of the FBI’s Russia investigation? How does Comey rebut the White House’s character assassination (Trump, for example, called him a “nut job” in front of Russian officials)?
John Dean pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and did prison time, but his cooperation with Congress and prosecutors ultimately enabled him to emerge from the Watergate scandal with his reputation enhanced. He came to be seen as somebody who in the end put truth, country and the Constitution above his loyalty to the president. It’s not hard to imagine that in the wake of Thursday’s testimony Comey will emerge as a Dean-like iconoclast — a law-minded public servant who made mistakes but is also willing to hold a lawless White House accountable. Yet it’s equally plausible that Comey’s testimony will be less explosive and less illuminating than has been anticipated. We will know more by midday Thursday.
Matthew Dallek, associate professor at George Washington’s Graduate School of Political Management, is author of Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security.
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