What will James Comey tell Congress?
The question has transfixed Washington for weeks since the Senate Intelligence Committee announced last month it would hear his testimony in public about the circumstances surrounding his abrupt ouster on May 9. President Trump’s sudden dismissal of Comey stirred up a political tempest that has yet to abate. Why was Comey fired? Is the federal investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government in peril? Did the president obstruct justice? Or have the president’s critics exaggerated the severity of the episode?
Comey himself stayed silent until Wednesday when he released his prepared opening statement for the committee. The former FBI director offered a recital of what he witnessed and experienced over the past six months in spare, deadpan prose. He described uncomfortable one-on-one meetings in which Trump asked Comey to drop inquiries into his political allies, clear him of wrongdoing before the investigation ended, and pledge his loyalty to the president. Comey drew no conclusions in the remarks, instead sticking to what he saw and knew. But the trajectory of what he describes seems clear: an effort by the president to undermine the FBI’s independence and its investigations into Russian interference in the election that placed him in power.
Whether Trump will agree with that characterization remains to be seen. In statements on Wednesday, his lawyers held up Comey’s opening remarks as exoneration of their client, citing the three occasions on which Comey affirmed that Trump himself was not under investigation. But that is only part of his testimony. Comey says he had nine one-on-one conversations with the president, but describes only five in his testimony. Democrats will likely ask him about the other four one-on-one conversations Comey had with the president, as well as any conversations he may have had with other White House officials or members of the Trump administration. Comey will likely decline to comment about details of the Russia investigation itself, but queries about it are virtually inevitable.
Republicans will also have questions for Comey, from a less sympathetic angle. What steps did he take to notify the Justice Department about the president’s purported actions? Why didn’t he inform Congress about Trump’s alleged transgressions into law-enforcement matters? And did he draft any of those fabled memos after interacting with Obama administration officials or even Obama himself?
Looming over the entire spectacle will be Trump, a digital specter who can lash out at a moment’s notice with an angry or derisive tweet. One can’t blame him for being interested in what happens on Capitol Hill today: Comey’s testimony could start to close a tumultuous chapter in Trump’s presidency—or open an even more painful one that haunts him for months or years to come.