James Comey Is About to Have His Biggest Moment Yet

The former FBI director's testimony Thursday will help determine Donald Trump's political future—and his legal fate.

by Matt Taylor
Jun 5 2017, 9:52pm

Art by Lia Kantrowitz/Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Just over four months after reality TV maven Donald Trump assumed the presidency, he has already succeeded in turning C-SPAN into must-see television. On Thursday, America is due for what is easily the most-hyped congressional hearing yet—that's when former FBI director James Comey will testify about the man who fired him. Though we don't know what he'll say, many observers are waiting for new details about the FBI investigation into alleged collusion between Russian officials and members of the Trump administration, as well as Trump's reported efforts to stymie that investigation.

Whether the scheduled appearance would go down at all was in doubt until Monday afternoon, when the White House put out a brief statement confirming Trump does not plan to invoke executive privilege to try and block Comey's testimony. But now that we know the testimony will happen, barring an act of God, the question is what we might learn that hasn't already been gleaned by investigative reporters at newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post.

Before his fateful and deeply controversial decision to publicly denounce Hillary Clinton for being "extremely careless" with classified information during the 2016 campaign, Comey had a reputation for being something of a boy scout who plays by the rules—a straight shooter with little taste for anything resembling partisan politics. But he'll have to reconcile his desire to defend himself against accusations of incompetence from the Trump White House with his sense of what's proper, as well as what's most useful to the ongoing, overlapping investigations from Congress and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. (Mueller, himself a former FBI director, is an old buddy of Comey's.)

For some context on just how dramatic Thursday's hearing will be and what the former FBI boss might let slip, I called up Liza Goitein. She's co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at NYU's Brennan Center, and a former counsel on the US Senate Judiciary Committee who's been on hand for Comey testimony in the past. Here's what she had to say.

VICE: James Comey famously testified before Congress in 2007 about the George W. Bush administration trying to get a bedridden Attorney General John Ashcroft to sign off on surveillance. His testimony was a blow to Bush and was also relatively dramatic stuff. What do you expect from him on Thursday?
Liza Goitein: I was in the room when that happened [in 2007], working for Senator [Russ] Feingold on the Judiciary Committee. No one expected it. I had sat through I don't know how many hearings where I sat there quietly and took notes and doodled in the margins. And all of a sudden everybody stopped what they were doing, all the staffers just stared at each other. We couldn't believe what we were hearing.

So Comey has a way of holding the attention in a room under far more mundane circumstances than this. He has a record of using congressional hearings as platforms to make some pretty explosive revelations, not just in 2007 but also obviously with the Clinton investigation. And that was when he was acting within the professional constraints of being FBI director.

But on the other hand, he cares deeply about his reputation and will very much want to avoid looking petty. So I don't believe he's going to come out with guns blazing or anything. I think he'll stick closely to answering the questions posed to him. Given the circumstances, though, that could still lead to quite a show.

I don't think everybody who's getting the popcorn ready will be disappointed.

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That was my next question. The NBA finals have been kind of disappointing so far, and some of us are looking for the next big moment in American cultural life. Is it unreasonable to pin our hopes on James Comey saying something interesting this week?
It's not unreasonable. It's possible that this will end up being much more run of the mill than people are expecting, but I think the smart money is on some pretty interesting stuff coming out.

Is there anything in particular you do expect Comey to address or even explicitly assert? The expectation or hope in some quarters is that he'll speak squarely to the loyalty pledge he was reportedly asked to make over dinner with the president. And certainly there's the possibility he will confirm or deny the story that Trump asked him to ax or wind down the probe into Michael Flynn.
A lot of this will depend on the contours of the agreement that he hammered out with Robert Mueller to pave the way for his testimony. He's going to be avoiding certain subjects or at least certain subtopics. We don't know; there's no public information on what the substance of the agreement is. But, for example, I think he's quite likely to steer clear of any questions about the underlying investigation into Russia's interference and the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia. I think anyone who's hoping to learn more about the Trump campaign's tie with Russia will be disappointed.

Then the question is, given that Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein authorized Mueller to also look potential obstruction of justice with respect to Comey's firing and related issues, how much of that will he be at liberty to discuss? It's more likely we'll hear details on that topic than issues of potential collusion. There are now several fairly damning pieces of evidence in the public domain suggesting that Trump fired Comey to try to derail the Russia investigation, and some of this evidence consists of Trump's own words. But there are other indications from news reports quoting anonymous sources inside government—you'll definitely see members of the committee trying to get Comey to confirm these reports and flesh them out a bit. They'll also be looking for additional evidence on the question of whether Trump was engaged in an effort to obstruct justice. I think that's where we're most likely to see some interesting, potentially new information.

"The question of the day is going to be how many times he says, 'I can't answer that question because it's an ongoing criminal investigation.'"

Comey has a reputation as a guy who doesn't throw words around carelessly, even if he got a lot of heat for what he said about Hillary Clinton. Which makes me think he's not going to straight up accuse the president of a crime if he's asked about whether he committed obstruction, right?
I very much doubt he'll say "yes" or "no"—I think he will say that it's not his place to reach that conclusion, that that matter is potentially if not actually under investigation right now. We know that Rosenstein authorized the investigation to look into that—we don't know what Mueller's actually looking at. But I imagine in either case he'll avoid giving a legal opinion as to whether or not obstruction of justice happened or an attempt to obstruct justice happened.

The question of the day is going to be how many times he says, "I can't answer that question because it's an ongoing criminal investigation." It'll be much more interesting the more he can say. But of course there is a criminal investigational underway, and it is valid for the FBI and Department of Justice and Mueller acting a former representative of them to try to protect that investigation.

I think there's still a lot he can say and probably still a lot he will say.

What will Republicans be focused on as Democrats hone in on the Russia and alleged obstruction stuff?
Trump's defenders on the committee will almost certainly deflect to the issue of leaks, which is how most of the evidence of potential obstruction has come to light. And they know they can rely on Comey to say that leaks coming out of the White House or the intelligence agencies are a bad thing.

What could he say that would actually have some kind of immediate impact on the investigations going on?
Almost anything. I mean, this is such an explosive issue, such a charged issue, that it wouldn't take a whole lot of additional gunpowder to make the whole thing explode. Even marginal information contributing to the weight of the evidence of either obstruction or collusion could have a pretty dramatic effect.

Is that at least partially driven by the media and by public attention to this hearing?
The fact is that these investigations will take time to run their course and time is actually needed in order to develop a full record and come to conclusions. But you can't expect the public in the meantime to be blind and deaf to the revelations that are coming out in the news. It's not the job of the public to reserve judgment until there's a court ruling. In the court of public opinion, whatever Comey says—assuming he says anything of substance—will carry a lot of weight.

What kind of historical precedent is there for a high-ranking federal law enforcement official testifying just weeks after being fired by the president about that same president's potentially criminal conduct?
Well, Sally Yates just did it. I think it is unusual but in this administration it may become the new norm. And Michael Flynn might testify too if they give him immunity—he'll sing like a bird. This president is leaving a trail of skeletons behind him with these firings.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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