Sus­pense rises in­side Beltway ahead of Comey’s tes­ti­mony

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAN BOY­LAN

The clash be­tween an un­ortho­dox Amer­i­can pres­i­dent and the FBI di­rec­tor whom he fired es­ca­lates to a new level Thurs­day as James B. Comey ap­pears be­fore Congress to tes­tify un­der oath on whether Pres­i­dent Trump tried to short-cir­cuit his agency’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian med­dling in the Novem­ber pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Spec­u­la­tion is soar­ing over what Mr. Comey will say dur­ing Capi­tol Hill’s most an­tic­i­pated con­gres­sional hear­ing in years, amid re­ports that he will chal­lenge key parts of Mr. Trump’s ac­counts of their deal­ings but stop short of of­fer­ing his own con­clu­sion that the pres­i­dent at­tempted to ob­struct jus­tice.

With out­side groups al­ready rush­ing to try to control the nar­ra­tive on Mr. Comey’s first pub­lic

com­ments on his fir­ing, Re­pub­li­can law­mak­ers will likely chal­lenge his cred­i­bil­ity while Democrats will push the for­mer FBI di­rec­tor to de­tail Mr. Trump’s pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions, in­clud­ing the pres­i­dent’s claims that Mr. Comey re­peat­edly told him he was not a tar­get of the FBI probe into Rus­sian hack­ing charges.

Mul­ti­ple press re­ports Tues­day hinted that Mr. Comey will di­rectly chal­lenge Mr. Trump’s claim that he per­son­ally told the pres­i­dent on three oc­ca­sions that he was not un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

With Mr. Comey keep­ing his own coun­sel and ow­ing lit­tle loy­alty to the man who abruptly dis­missed him last month, there is gen­uine sus­pense about how far he will go in char­ac­ter­iz­ing the pres­sure he felt from Mr. Trump and his aides.

The for­mer FBI chief will tes­tify Thurs­day dur­ing an open ses­sion of the Se­nate Select Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence in the morn­ing and in a closed hear­ing af­ter lunch. Many won­der if he will have coun­sel by his side or if the 30-year-plus veteran of law en­force­ment will stand be­fore Congress alone.

Since the May 9 an­nounce­ment, Wash­ing­ton has wres­tled with the deeper mean­ing of Mr. Trump’s de­ci­sion to dis­miss the FBI di­rec­tor, only the sec­ond such fir­ing in the agency’s 109-year his­tory.

Mr. Trump in­flamed pub­lic de­bate last month by set­ting a new stan­dard for ex­ec­u­tive-level ver­bal abuse. He called Mr. Comey a “show­boat” dur­ing a TV in­ter­view and fol­lowed up by re­port­edly telling Rus­sian of­fi­cials vis­it­ing the White House that the for­mer FBI chief was a “nut job.”

The pres­i­dent’s sons have been scathing in de­nounc­ing the en­tire in­ves­ti­ga­tion into sus­pected Rus­sian-Trump cam­paign col­lu­sion. Eric Trump told ABC’s “Good Morn­ing Amer­ica” on Tues­day that the story was “the great­est hoax of all time.”

But the pres­i­dent sur­prised many this week when the White House an­nounced that it would not in­voke ex­ec­u­tive priv­i­lege to try to pre­vent Mr. Comey from tes­ti­fy­ing.

While say­ing noth­ing pri­vately, Mr. Comey and his con­fi­dants have ef­fec­tively coun­ter­punched with a string of leaks to the press, in­clud­ing one to The New York Times of a pri­vate memo he re­port­edly wrote af­ter an Oval Of­fice meet­ing with Mr. Trump in Fe­bru­ary. An Associated Press re­port Tues­day said Mr. Comey had asked his boss, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, to shield the FBI chief from ever be­ing alone in the same room as Mr. Trump.

The Comey-writ­ten memo re­port­edly ac­cused Mr. Trump of at­tempt­ing to per­suade Mr. Comey to drop the FBI’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into for­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Michael Flynn, who was dis­missed af­ter mis­lead­ing Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence and oth­ers about the ex­tent of his con­tacts with Rus­sian of­fi­cials dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial tran­si­tion.

“I hope you can let this go,” Mr. Trump al­legedly told the FBI chief in the meet­ing.

There was fur­ther cor­rob­o­ra­tion Tues­day of such a dy­namic, as The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported that Mr. Trump asked Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Daniel Coats in a pri­vate meet­ing af­ter a broader gath­er­ing of agency heads in March to stop the Flynn probe — a re­quest Mr. Coats later de­cided was in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

The dra­matic leaks have at times over­whelmed Mr. Trump’s pol­icy agenda and left law­mak­ers ea­ger to hear di­rectly from Mr. Comey. Some said they were tired of leaks and par­ti­san in­nu­endo and wanted di­rect tes­ti­mony from the key source.

“The ac­counts of th­ese memos [Mr. Comey] al­legedly wrote would be at least triple hearsay, what Don­ald Trump said ac­cord­ing to Jim Comey ac­cord­ing to some­one who saw the memo, ac­cord­ing to The New York Times re­porter who had it read to him,” said Sen. Tom Cot­ton, Arkansas Re­pub­li­can.

Speak­ing on “The Hugh He­witt Show” on Tues­day, Mr. Cot­ton said he hadn’t per­son­ally seen any ev­i­dence of the memos in ques­tion. That could change on Thurs­day.

Per­jury or ob­struc­tion

The hear­ing’s most se­ri­ous le­gal drama will fo­cus on ac­cu­sa­tions that Mr. Trump sug­gested Mr. Comey ease off the FBI’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Mr. Flynn.

Repub­li­cans are ex­pected to ham­mer what ap­pear to be in­con­sis­ten­cies be­tween what Mr. Comey has said and what emerged in his leaked memos. One key mys­tery: Why didn’t Mr. Comey go pub­lic or re­sign if he felt the pres­i­dent was act­ing im­prop­erly on a sen­si­tive na­tional se­cu­rity in­ves­ti­ga­tion?

Mr. Comey told a Se­nate Ju­di­ciary over­sight hear­ing last month that if he “were told to stop some­thing for a po­lit­i­cal rea­son, that would be a very big deal. It’s not hap­pened in my ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Re­pub­li­can sources close to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion told The Wash­ing­ton Times that they were cu­ri­ous why Mr. Comey felt enough pres­sure from Mr. Trump to record it in a memo but not enough pres­sure to tell Congress last month while tes­ti­fy­ing.

Some Repub­li­cans might ask Mr. Comey if he thinks he per­jured him­self be­fore Congress. They could also say the memos were fakes or un­re­li­able. They also will likely ques­tion him closely about the leaks from the FBI to me­dia out­lets — and pos­si­bly other leaks from Obama-era of­fi­cials.

Democrats have a dif­fer­ent agenda. They say Mr. Trump’s re­ported re­quest for le­niency to­ward Mr. Flynn “points in the di­rec­tion of ob­struc­tion of jus­tice.”

Le­gal an­a­lysts are quick to note that ob­struc­tion of jus­tice re­quires a high stan­dard of ev­i­dence and pur­pose. In Mr. Comey’s case, they say, it would be hard to prove ob­struc­tion if Mr. Trump did noth­ing more than men­tion that the FBI should ease off Mr. Flynn. But Mr. Comey could in­flict se­ri­ous dam­age on the White House if he pro­vides more de­tails and con­text as to what Mr. Trump said about the over­all Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Any ev­i­dence from the Fe­bru­ary White House meet­ing — in­clud­ing Mr. Trump’s ex­pres­sions and body lan­guage — also could be rel­e­vant, le­gal an­a­lysts say.

Democrats could high­light a threat­en­ing tweet from Mr. Trump im­ply­ing that he had tapes of his talk with Mr. Comey. If true, that could be a vi­o­la­tion of fed­eral law.

Ron Hosko, who re­tired in 2014 as as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of the FBI, said he doesn’t be­lieve his for­mer boss will be aided by an at­tor­ney dur­ing his tes­ti­mony, nor will he need one. Mr. Comey has al­ready ob­tained clear­ance from Robert Mueller, a for­mer FBI chief who is now the spe­cial coun­sel look­ing into the Rus­sian col­lu­sion charges, to tes­tify about his deal­ings with Mr. Trump on han­dling the Rus­sia probe.

“His at­tor­ney is go­ing to be his own judg­ment, Bob Mueller’s judg­ment,” said Mr. Hosko, who now serves as pres­i­dent of the Law En­force­ment Le­gal De­fense Fund.

Fever pitch

Though some say there is lit­tle chance that Thurs­day’s hear­ing will meet the high ex­pec­ta­tions for drama, there is no ques­tion that Mr. Comey’s ap­pear­ance is dom­i­nat­ing the con­ver­sa­tion in of­fi­cial Wash­ing­ton.

“I haven’t seen ex­cite­ment like this in years,” a Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cial told The Times. “It’s a heavy­weight fight all about jus­tice.”

The ex­cite­ment and ner­vous­ness, some say, is every­where. CNN is run­ning a ticker count­ing down the time to the hear­ing’s start. The ma­jor broad­cast net­works will be join­ing their ca­ble coun­ter­parts in cov­er­ing live at least por­tions of Mr. Comey’s Capi­tol Hill tes­ti­mony — an ex­ceed­ingly rare phe­nom­e­non.

Some bars in Wash­ing­ton have an­nounced that they will open early for the show and are also of­fer­ing spe­cial “FBI” drinks for pa­trons watching the pro­ceed­ings. Jump­ing into the fray, a pro-Trump su­per PAC is pre­par­ing ads ac­cus­ing Mr. Comey of putting pol­i­tics above the coun­try. The ads will first run dig­i­tally, then on na­tional TV the day of the hear­ing.

Even be­fore Mr. Comey ap­pears, the White House may face some un­com­fort­able mo­ments on Capi­tol Hill.

On Wed­nes­day, Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein, who made the call to ap­point Mr. Mueller, will also ap­pear be­fore the Se­nate com­mit­tee, along­side act­ing FBI Di­rec­tor An­drew McCabe, Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency Di­rec­tor Mike Rogers and Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Daniel Coats. They will dis­cuss the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Act laws that are set to ex­pire this year, but the Comey con­tro­versy is vir­tu­ally cer­tain to come up.

It will be Mr. Rosen­stein’s first con­gres­sional ap­pear­ance since he pri­vately briefed law­mak­ers af­ter Mr. Comey’s fir­ing.

Most polls ex­plor­ing the is­sue show roughly half of Amer­i­cans sur­veyed be­lieve Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey to slow down the FBI’s Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

There is al­ready spec­u­la­tion that Mr. Trump will be live-tweet­ing his own re­ac­tion to what Mr. Comey said, but for just a moment Tues­day, the pres­i­dent was tak­ing the high road.

Asked by a re­porter at a White House event if he had any mes­sage for Mr. Comey, Mr. Trump said only, “I wish him luck.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

STAR: For­mer FBI Di­rec­tor James B. Comey is at the cen­ter of one of the most an­tic­i­pated con­gres­sional hear­ings in years.

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