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James Comey testimony: what to expect from the hearing on President Trump’s firing of the FBI director

Comey is set to testify that Trump asked him to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn.

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Fired FBI Director James Comey will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee about his interactions with President Donald Trump at 10 am Thursday, in a high-stakes hearing with major implications for Trump’s presidency.

We already know a good amount of what Comey will say, since the committee released his prepared opening statement on Wednesday afternoon. For one, Comey will confirm under oath that Trump once tried to get him to drop an FBI investigation into fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — an act that raises serious questions about whether the president committed obstruction of justice.

Furthermore, Comey will testify about a pair of phone calls in which President Trump complained to him about the FBI’s investigation into his associates’ ties to Russia, calling it a “cloud” looming over his presidency, and repeatedly asked Comey to say publicly that Trump wasn’t under investigation.

And he will describe a series of at best uncomfortable and at worst highly inappropriate interactions with the president, including an early dinner at which Trump repeatedly asked for his “loyalty.”

However, he will also corroborate Trump’s assertion that Comey told him several times that he was not personally under investigation — an assertion many in the press doubted until Comey’s prepared testimony was unveiled.

It is unclear how much more detail Comey will offer in addition to what’s in the opening statement. And he is expected to decline to publicly testify about the specifics of the FBI’s Russia investigation, since it is still active under special counsel Robert Mueller.

Still, senators will surely press Comey to tell them whatever he can during the hearing. And if Comey is uncomfortable doing so in public, he’s also scheduled to brief the committee in a closed hearing later that afternoon. So it should be an eventful day.

Three big themes going into the Comey hearing

There were three big takeaways from Comey’s prepared testimony that senators will likely try to follow up on further.

First, there is the February 14, 2017, interaction between Trump and Comey in which Trump allegedly asked the then-FBI director to drop an investigation into fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Comey will say that Trump deliberately cleared the room so he and Comey could be alone together for this interaction, and then immediately brought up Flynn, insisting that he hadn’t done anything wrong. According to Comey, Trump then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Out of everything Comey says in his prepared testimony, this is the closest Trump appears to come to doing something that looks like obstruction of justice.

So expect a major focus on this incident, particularly in the wake of a Washington Post report that Trump’s efforts to protect Flynn didn’t stop there. After a White House briefing on March 22, the Post’s Adam Entous reports, Trump asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats “if he could intervene” with Comey “to get the bureau to back off its focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn in its Russia probe.”

Second, there are the private assertions from Comey to Trump — now confirmed by Comey — that Trump wasn’t personally under investigation, and the subsequent demands from Trump that that information be publicized.

Comey will surely be asked why, exactly, he was so unwilling to publicly say Trump wasn’t being personally investigated in public, if he was happy to say it to Trump in private. Both Democrats and Republican senators will surely be very curious about this, since, it has major import for the propriety of two phone calls in which Trump called Comey and vented about the Russia investigation.

According to Comey’s prepared testimony, the president did not ask him to drop the Russia investigation during these calls. Nor did he ask Comey to mislead the public in any way. His repeated direct request was for Comey to confirm what Trump understood to be true — that he isn’t under investigation.

Finally, there is the topic of behavior by Trump that may not put the president in any legal jeopardy but seemed to indicate that he had little respect or understanding of the FBI’s traditional independence. Notably, this includes Comey’s planned testimony that Trump invited him for a private dinner and asked him for “loyalty.”

Also look for questions about Comey’s interactions with White House staffers under Trump (like Reince Priebus and Jared Kushner) or other intelligence officials (like Dan Coats), a topic he doesn’t say much about in his prepared testimony.

What to expect from the committee members

The testimony will take place before the Senate Intelligence Committee, and that’s no accident: The committee is conducting the leading congressional investigation into Russia interference in the 2016 election. Its members include:

The leaders: Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who has had little public profile until this year, is the committee’s chair. Burr is also reportedly working closely with Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), who has said the Russia investigation “is the most important thing that I’ve ever done in my public life.”

The veterans: Two other top Democrats on the committee are Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR). Feinstein, a former chair of the committee, oversaw the debate over controversial issues like the release of a report on torture, while Wyden has a history of asking careful, strategic questions designed to surface new information in hearings like this. (“This is about fleshing out what he’s put on the record. Because what he’s put on the record is quite remarkable,” Wyden told my colleague Jeff Stein on Wednesday.) There will also be two representatives of Republican Senate leadership — Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) — who will likely have the party’s interests and agenda in mind.

The moderates: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) are the most moderate senators of their respective parties, and both serve on this committee. Collins’s questioning should be particularly interesting, since she initially defended Trump’s firing of Comey and claimed it was unrelated to the Russia investigation. Manchin, representing a state Trump won big in advance of what could be a tough reelection fight in 2018, should also be interesting to watch.

The potential presidential candidates: One former presidential candidate — Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) — and two young politicians thought to have presidential ambitions — Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) — serve on the committee. Rubio’s questioning should be particularly interesting to watch, since at a separate Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday, he had some surprisingly pointed inquiries about Trump’s conduct that were met with conspicuous silence from the administration officials testifying.

Will Trump live-tweet the hearing?

One more question in this drama is what President Trump will say, do, or tweet during and after Comey’s testimony.

The Washington Post’s Robert Costa reported Tuesday that, according to two White House sources, Trump “does not plan to put down Twitter on Tuesday” and “may live tweet if he feels the need to respond.”

A report from Politico’s Matthew Nussbaum, Josh Dawsey, Darren Samuelsohn, and Tara Palmeri said staff would try to distract Trump, though that could prove difficult to do:

"But if he wants to watch it, it's not like we can say, ‘oh, the TV doesn't work,’" one official said.

The president is also expected to deliver a speech at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Conference around the time Comey’s testimony is expected to wrap, at 12:30 pm Eastern. Given Trump’s recent inability to restrain himself from discussing the legal strategy behind the travel ban executive order, he could say something revealing about Comey during the afternoon speech.

Now, given the overwhelming advice from aides that he should send fewer impulsive tweets — particularly on potentially consequential legal matters — he could well decide to take a more considered and strategic messaging response in the end, perhaps through his lawyer Marc Kasowitz (who claimed Wednesday that Trump had been “totally vindicated” by Comey’s prepared testimony.)

But a recent report by Costa and Post reporters Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker did not paint a pretty picture of the president’s mental state right now:

Alone in the White House in recent days, President Trump — frustrated and defiant — has been spoiling for a fight, according to his confidants and associates.

Glued even more than usual to the cable news shows that blare from the televisions in his private living quarters, or from the 60-inch flat screen he had installed in his cramped study off the Oval Office, he has fumed about “fake news.” Trump has seethed as his agenda has stalled in Congress and the courts. He has chafed against the pleas for caution from his lawyers and political advisers, tweeting whatever he wants, whenever he wants.

After that, on Wednesday morning, Trump decided to give his aides a new Twitter surprise — by announcing he had chosen Christopher Wray as FBI director, without even telling his communications staff in advance.

So the president may well be in the mood to tweet from the hip.

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