What to expect from ex FBI director James Comey’s Senate testimony about the Russia probe

Comey in May, days before he was fired.
Comey in May, days before he was fired.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Ousted FBI director James Comey will publicly testify about the events that led up to his firing this Thursday morning, June 8, to a US Senate committee, and already US politics wonks and curious overseas observers alike are stocking up on the popcorn.

“Comey mania about to take over Washington,” CNN declared, with several major US networks carrying his testimony live. Excited US television pundits are already making comparisons to events that changed history like the 1973 Watergate hearings, and web-based news outlets are planning live-blogs and live streams.

This will be the first time that Comey speaks publicly since he was unceremoniously fired on May 9, just as the FBI was issuing subpoenas for the business records of former US national security advisor Michael Flynn, and after president Donald Trump reportedly encouraged him to drop an investigation into Russia’s interference in the last US presidential election.

Comey is testifying in front of the 13 members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is conducting its own investigation into election meddling by Russia. The first half of his testimony will be broadcast, while the second will be behind closed doors to discuss classified matters. Some members of the committee have already been explaining what they hope to learn on Thursday. Here’s what to watch for:

When and where did Comey and Trump talk privately?

The two spoke on several occasions since Trump took office, at least once at Trump’s initiation, the president said in an interview after Comey was fired, without being more specific about the timing. Comey kept detailed memos of those meetings, the New York Times reported (paywall), and those details are some of the most highly anticipated parts of the hearings. Legal experts consider a president calling the FBI about an ongoing investigation “well-nigh incomprehensible,” as the Lawfare blog wrote. Expect questions on who contacted whom, where they met, when, and what was said.

Did Trump pressure Comey to be “loyal” or halt the investigation?

These are probably the most important questions. Trump at one point told Comey, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” according to the Times report, and pressured Comey within weeks of taking office to put out word that Trump himself was not under investigation, according to a second Times report.

During a dinner at the White House, Trump asked Comey to pledge his “loyalty,” according to multiple news reports.

Comey was “preoccupied throughout this period with the need to protect the FBI from these inquiries on investigative matters from the White House,” Lawfare editor Benjamin Wittes wrote, citing personal conversations with Comey (the two are friends). If true, Trump’s actions would be “unthinkable,” said Mark Warner, a Democratic senator on the committee.

Did Comey tell Trump he wasn’t under investigation?

The letter in which Trump dismissed Comey also thanks Comey for confirming “on three separate occasions” that Trump was not being investigated. This has perplexed the intelligence community, lawyers, and senators because it would be highly unusual for the FBI head to tell him such a thing.

Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine and a member of the intelligence committee, told CBS that the letter raises questions including: “Does Mr. Comey agree that that is what was said? Why would he tell the President that? What was the tone and the context of those discussions on three different occasions, if they in fact are accurately portrayed in this letter?”

Where are all the leaks coming from, anyway?

There are few public statements about the ongoing investigations, but there has been a steady drip of leaks about the behavior of Trump campaign officials, White House officials, attorney general Jeff Sessions, and Trump himself. Expect the Republican-led Senate committee to spend some time grilling Comey on where this information is coming from, and whether classified information is being improperly shared.

Is the Russian threat real?

The investigation into Russia’s involvement in the last election has become a highly charged issue. Trump supporters, including his sons, have called it a “hoax,” even as top intelligence officials, including Trump appointees Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, and Mike Pompeo, head of the CIA, have testified (paywall) that Russia did interfere in the election. Comey’s testimony is a chance to reinforce that the investigation is based on valid concerns, Warner said.