By Devlin Barrett and Ellen Nakashima
When James Comey sits down before a microphone Thursday in his first public appearance since he was fired as director of the FBI, a key question he is likely to face is whether he believes President Donald Trump tried to obstruct an ongoing federal probe of his associates.
Even before Comey has uttered a word, some predict the hearing will be historic - a moment in which a former senior official has a nationally televised platform to repudiate a president who has lashed out at the federal government he leads.
“Comey has made a career of providing bombshell testimony to Congress,’’ said Tracy Schmaler, a former Senate Judiciary Committee staffer who attended a 2007 hearing in which Comey captivated the capital with an account of apparent White House interference with Justice Department decision-making. “In that respect, Thursday will be what everyone’s expecting - the most anticipated hearing so far in the Trump administration.”
The president may also be watching. Though he has scheduled a midday public appearance, Trump may live-tweet his reactions if he feels prompted to respond to Comey’s testimony, according to two White House officials who were not authorized to speak publicly.
White House staffers have signaled they will try to portray Comey as an unreliable witness. “The last time he testified under oath, the FBI had to scurry to correct the testimony,’’ adviser Kellyanne Conway said earlier this week. That was a reference to Comey’s May 3 congressional testimony, in which the then-FBI director, as he was describing the bureau’s probe of Hillary Clinton’s emails, misstated the number and type of emails forwarded by a Clinton aide.
After the president abruptly fired Comey last month, associates of the former FBI director revealed the president had repeatedly pressed him about the investigation of possible contacts between his associates and Russian operatives. They said Comey felt the conversations with the president often veered into improper areas, and the FBI director took pains to prepare for the talks with Trump and to make detailed written records after each one.
In a January dinner meeting, the president asked Comey to pledge loyalty to him but the director demurred, according to these associates, former colleagues of Comey. The next month, Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation of Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and again the director demurred, according to associates.
In Thursday’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey is expected to describe those conversations in detail, although he will be careful not to discuss classified information, which is likely to prevent him from providing new details about the Russia probe, associates said.
Comey also will try to steer clear of saying anything that could compromise or constrain the work of special counsel Robert Mueller, now heading up the investigation, such as offering legal or prosecutorial judgments, these people said.
One Comey associate said lawmakers should expect a vivid picture of his private interactions with the president.
In 2007, Comey offered riveting testimony to a Senate panel about a confrontation he had at a hospital with senior White House aides over a classified surveillance program. His dramatic telling of that story helped lead to the resignation of President George W. Bush’s attorney general, Alberto Gonzales.
The showdown did much to cement his reputation as a law enforcement official willing to stand up to his political bosses when he thought they were wrong. Comey’s testimony then was “riveting,” Schmaler said - a rare moment when lawmakers essentially stopped talking and just let a witness speak for 20 minutes straight. As important as that hearing was, the stakes - and the buildup - to Thursday’s appearance are even bigger.
“Now we’re actually going to know what Comey’s views, thoughts and reactions were when the president asked him those questions,” Schmaler said. “I will be curious to see whether and how he tries to lay a foundation for possible obstruction of justice.”
Analysts who have studied Comey’s career expect he will tell the tale in a way that draws clear moral lines through what might otherwise be murky legal matters. “James Comey has the quiet confidence and a track record of knowing how to dominate, how to direct the story,” said Karen Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University.
“He trusts his conscience, and he’s not afraid to stand up to people who he thinks are wrong,” she said. “It’s where he sees morality intersect with the law.”
In this case, she said, his answers could help the public understand that attempts to interfere with the justice system are wrong.
“This is a moment in history to say that the attack on the justice system stops here,” she said.
Senior senators, meanwhile, have begun to preview their lines of questioning for Thursday’s hearing.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told CBS that her questions would focus on Trump’s assertion that Comey had assured him three times that he was not under investigation. “That phrase raises a lot of questions in my mind,” she said. “Does Mr. Comey agree that that was what was said?”
Democrats are expected to press Comey about conversations not just with the president but also with other senior administration officials, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the committee’s top Democrat, has said that some of his questions will focus on Jared Kushner, Trump’s influential son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, and his contacts before and after the election with Russian officials.
A day before Comey’s testimony, Rosenstein will face his own grilling, in his first public testimony since he penned a controversial memo that laid out a public case for firing Comey.
Democrats on Wednesday also will seek to have Rosenstein lay out publicly what he has told senators in private - that he knew Trump was going to fire Comey before he wrote his memo, essentially an admission that he knew his memo was going to be used in the effort.
Also scheduled to appear Wednesday are National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats. The Washington Post reported that Trump asked both men, in separate conversations, to publicly state that there was no evidence of collusion between Trump associates and Russian officials. Both men considered the request inappropriate and declined to do so.
Committee Democrats will also want to press Rogers and Coats on that report, Senate aides said.
Comey is expected to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee at 10 a.m.
The Washington Post’s Robert Costa contributed to this report.