WASHINGTON – FBI Director James Comey will be back on the hot seat Monday when he testifies to Congress about Russian attempts to disrupt the last years U.S. presidential election.
But “back on” might imply wrongly that he has ever been off it.
Since July, when he made his first statement on the FBI investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails, Comey’s been living on that seat. During that time, he has been a hero to Democrats, a villain to Republicans, a villain to Democrats, a hero to Republicans.
Democrats blame Comey for costing Clinton the election. They now count on him for the information to finally tear apart President Donald Trump’s allegations that President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap on Trump Tower in New York during the campaign.
But Comey’s reality is that as he settles down to address the House Intelligence Committee in the first public testimony about intelligence issues surrounding the past election, he’s returning to a place that is frequently angry at him, and constantly calling on him to return.
Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, will also be questioned and is expected to have just as much information as Comey.
How much the two will share is unknown.
The hearing begins the public process to determine whether there’s fire beneath the smoke covering the nation’s capital. Investigations by the House and Senate intelligence committees and other congressional panels, including the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Government Oversight Committee, are dealing with a wide range of issues.
Recent headlines and statements have focused on whether Obama ordered Trump Tower to be wiretapped during the campaign. There is little belief, even among Trump loyalists, that Trump’s accusations will be vindicated.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said as much recently when asked what he expects from the hearing. “I’ve been very clear,” he said. “There was no physical wiretap.”
But the Trump Tower wiretap claim is really a sidelight to the main investigation. The big question is whether Russia interfered in the U.S. election, as the U.S. intelligence community concluded in a January report. And if it did, did anyone in Russia work with – “colluded” is the preferred word – anyone in the Trump campaign?
That’s the reason behind the focus on communications between Trump’s inner circle and Russian officials. So when Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Trump’s short-lived national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is found to have talked with a Russian ambassador – and in Flynn’s case accepted more than $33,000 from the television station RT, which U.S. intelligence has called the “Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” – congressional officials think it requires investigation.
Nunes says Comey’s testimony is part of the investigation, not a show of already known facts. “We’re looking for answers to a number of questions,” he said. “That’s what I expect: answers.”
Congressional investigators sofar date have been allowed to review material that supported the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia meddled in the election, hacking into Democratic computers and distributing the pirated contents through WikiLeaks, to benefit Trump and hurt Clinton. But they’ve had to go to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and were permitted to take notes only by hand. Nunes said the committee had asked for permission to use computers.
The senior Democrat on Nunes’ committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, thinks the Trump wiretap allegations will be quickly cleared up. After that, he’s not certain what information will emerge.
Perhaps the committee will want to see Trump’s tax returns to determine whether the president has Russian financial entanglements.
The committee also will probe a series of leaks that Nunes in particular thinks were serious violations of U.S. law on the handling of classified information. Who might have leaked, for example, that Flynn had been recorded talking to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak is one question the committee would like answered.
Throughout, Comey is expected to remain a fixture before the committee, in public on Monday and many other times in private. And not just the House committee. The Senate Intelligence Committee has scheduled its first public hearing on the Russia question for March 30, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., says he has a promise that Comey will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer two questions: did any U.S. court issue an order allowing the Trump campaign to be bugged and is there an open criminal investigation into Trump or his associates?