It’s a sign of just how important tomorrow’s appearance by former FBI director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the event is set to be aired live by major broadcast channels that would normally be running fluffy morning news programs, game shows and soap operas. That means that many Americans who aren’t dedicated C-SPAN viewers might find themselves confronted with an unfamiliar spectacle on Thursday morning: a Congressional hearing with the potential to make history.
For those who aren’t used to them, there is a yo-yo like quality to many high-stakes congressional hearings, particularly if there are major partisan issues hanging in the balance. After opening statements are out of the way, Republican and Democratic members take turns asking questions of the witness, usually in five-minute increments that begin with the most senior members of the committee and work their way down the ladder.
In most cases, this follows a predictable pattern. Members of one party take a hard line on the witness, pressing for justification of statements and claims and sometimes flat-out attempting to discredit their testimony altogether. They are then followed by a member of the opposite party, who offers gentle, leading questions often accompanied by a sanctimonious apology for the behavior of colleagues on the other side of the aisle.
Because of the gravity of the issues at hand, it’s reasonable to expect that the dividing line between the parties won’t be quite as stark tomorrow. Many Republicans are deeply concerned about the possibility that the president may have tried to meddle in the Russia investigation and are deeply concerned about the implications of foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election.
But Comey’s testimony still carries the potential for partisan bickering, high drama and the very real possibility of bombshell revelations. Here’s rundown of what to expect on Thursday.
THINGS WE ALREADY KNOW
Because of the nature of a high-profile Congressional hearing, Comey will be asked to repeat multiple things that are already widely known. This is partly an effort to have precise statements from the former FBI director on the record, and partly for public relations purposes, an effort to hammer home some potentially embarrassing details.
Not long after Trump took office, he summoned Comey to a private dinner at the White House. Comey associates have confirmed that the FBI director was reluctant to accept the invitation, but felt that he was unable to decline. During the meal, he revealed to them, the president requested a pledge of Comey’s personal loyalty, which the FBI director declined to offer. Comey viewed the request as such a shocking breach of protocol that he immediately documented in a memo left in the FBI’s files.
2. “Let This Go”
Comey will undoubtedly be asked to recount the one-on-one meeting he had with Trump in February, in which the president, directed others, including Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to leave the room. Comey has already told associates that Trump explicitly asked him to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. Again, the request was so irregular that Comey immediately committed his account of it to a memo.
Democrats on the panel will press Comey to describe the president’s request as amounting to obstruction of justice -- an impeachable offense. The former FBI director is expected to defer that determination to an investigation being led by another former FBI director, Robert Mueller, who has been named special counsel by the Justice Department.
3. Hiding in the Curtains
Comey has told his associates that during a televised meeting in the Oval Office between the president and law enforcement officials, he hung back on the fringes of the crowd, hoping to blend in with the background and avoid a one-on-one interaction. Instead, the president spotted him and singled him out for a handshake and an awkward one-sided attempt at a hug. While the incident itself is trivial, it may come up as members of Congress try to get the former FBI director to articulate exactly why he felt uncomfortable with projecting a close relationship between himself and the president.
Comey, in one of his last appearances in front of Congress before being fired, misstated the number of potentially sensitive emails that were found on a laptop in the possession of former Congressman Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of Hillary Clinton aide Anthony Weiner. The FBI examined the laptop in the waning days of the 2016 election, as part of the inquiry into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state.
After Comey claimed that “hundreds and thousands” of emails were found on the laptop, the FBI had to offer a correction, indicating that the actual number of email chains had been in the dozens. In the grand scheme of things it was a minor slip, but Republicans on the panel are expected to bring it up as part of an effort to attack the former FBI director’s credibility.
THINGS WE SUSPECT
What exactly did Comey tell Trump about the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia? How much pressure was applied from other members of the administration? None of this is clear at the moment, and a main object of tomorrow’s hearing will be to clarify some of these questions.
1. I Am Not Under Investigation
President Trump’s letter to Comey informing him that he had been fired contained this particularly odd passage: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”
Multiple law enforcement figures have said over the past weeks that it would have been strange at best for Comey to offer the president blanket assurances, on three different occasions, that he was somehow absolved of suspicion with regard to his campaign’s Russia contacts. The expectation is that Comey will contradict Trump, saying that he gave the president no such assurances.
2. You’re on Your Own
More recently, it has been revealed that Comey, after one of his early face-to-face meetings with Trump, specifically asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to remain with him during future interactions with the president or at least to assure that he was not left alone with Trump. Comey’s concern was the appearance of impropriety -- the idea that one-on-one meetings between the president and the head of the FBI created an impression of cooperation that could undercut the public’s trust in the agency as an independent investigator.
Sessions reportedly told Comey that he couldn’t offer such a guarantee. Members of the committee will almost certainly press Comey on the degree of cooperation and support he felt that he received from the Department of Justice during his time overseeing the Russia investigation. Those answers will be colored by the fact that it was Sessions who recommended his firing, based on a harsh memo written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The memo attacked Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation.
Unlike most other Congressional witnesses, a hearing with James Comey raises the possibility that there will be previously unknown bombshell revelations made public for the first time. Though he cultivates the image of a straight-arrow just-the-fact lawman, the former FBI chief has a history of introducing dramatic and surprising details during high-profile hearings.
During the George W. Bush administration, he detailed his intervention in an effort by the White House to force bedridden Attorney General John Ashcroft to sign an order renewing controversial government surveillance authority. Earlier this year, he unexpectedly revealed that the Trump campaign was under investigation for possible collusion with Russian agents in the disruption of the 2016 election.
While there is no guarantee that Comey will offer unexpected or dramatic revelations, there’s a good reason why regular broadcast television networks are expected to cover tomorrow’s hearing live. The prospect of a history-making bit of television is very real with Comey on the stand.