It’s hard to overstate the historic significance of what’s going to take place on Capitol Hill on Thursday: A recently fired FBI director will accuse a sitting US president of trying to scuttle an investigation into one of his aides.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has released the testimony that former FBI Director James Comey will be giving at Thursday’s hearing, and it has big, troubling implications for the crisis-laden Trump presidency.
In his testimony, Comey says that after a one-on-one meeting with Trump in February, he “understood the president to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December.” Comey also states that after discussing Trump’s request to “let this go,” the FBI leadership team agreed that the FBI should not allow the request to “infect” its investigation, and that it carried on undeterred.
Comey’s testimony is going to ignite a huge debate over whether or not Trump can be prosecuted for obstruction of justice for these actions, or any other attempts to curb the FBI’s investigation into links between Trump’s affiliates and Russia.
But before the hearing begins, it’s worth pausing to remember how we got here — and to look at the signal moments from Comey’s time in Washington and the sequence of events that led his firing.
Comey burst onto the national scene in 2007, when he shocked Washington during a Senate hearing with an electrifying story of trying to protect the Justice Department from interference by the George W. Bush White House — a moment of testimony that helped trigger the resignation of Alberto Gonzales, Bush’s attorney general. On May 9 of this year, Comey rocked the capital again when he was fired from his position as head of the FBI, accused by the president of being overly fixated on investigating possible ties between his administration and Russia.
Along the way, he infuriated Democrats with a highly politicized investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server that may have delivered the 2016 presidential election to Trump, and incensed Republicans for declining to bring charges against Clinton.
Comey has a history of saying uncomfortable things to powerful people
It’s safe to say that Comey is better at making enemies than friends in Washington. Trump’s recent criticism of the former FBI director as a “showboat” isn’t exactly off the mark. Comey’s career in the capital has been punctuated by high-profile episodes in which he has relished personal independence over allegiance to any specific administration or political party — and done so knowing that the consequences will be deeply political.
A number of observers of his past testimonies before Congress expect that independent streak to continue on Thursday.
Senate hearings aren’t known for producing riveting television, but in 2007 Comey delivered some primetime-worthy material when he offered damning testimony about his past experience as deputy attorney general under the Bush administration and their shady attempts to overturn the Justice Department’s decision to ax Bush’s warrantless domestic spying program.
Comey’s testimony was the highlight of the hearings that congressional Democrats held on Bush’s politicization of the Justice Department and helped bring down Gonzalez, the attorney general. It showcased Comey’s willingness to speak truth to power, and was a big part of the reason he was nominated to head the FBI under Obama in 2013 — as well as why he sailed through Senate confirmation with a vote of 93-1.
In the runup to the 2016 election, Comey again showed a willingness to use his personal power to shape political events. In a dramatic press conference on July 5, 2016, he announced that he would not recommend that criminal charges be brought against Clinton for handling classified documents on her private email server during her time as secretary of state — but he slammed her and her staff as “extremely careless.” His indictment of her behavior helped cement widespread concerns among her critics that she saw herself as above the law.
Then on October 28, just 11 days before Americans headed to the polls, Comey sent a letter to congressional leaders announcing that he was launching a new probe into Clinton’s use of a private server due to the emergence of new emails that were discovered in an unrelated criminal investigation into Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former Congress member and estranged husband of a Clinton aide. The announcement set off a whole new wave of controversy surrounding Clinton, and given how close it came to Election Day, it likely helped tip the election toward Trump.
Clinton and Democrats excoriated Comey for his handling of the email investigations, but he has since said that he believes going public with his claims was the right thing to do.
Comey and Trump haven’t gotten along so well
From the very beginning of Trump’s presidency, Comey showed signs that while he had no problem making an enemy of Clinton and her supporters, he wasn’t seeking Trump’s favor either.
In one remarkable episode, Comey tried to avoid Trump’s attention during a ceremony to honor law enforcement officials, held just a couple of days after Trump’s inauguration, by ... trying to blend in with some curtains.
Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog, recounts the tale told to him by Comey:
But as he told me the story, he tried hard to blend into the background and avoid any one-on-one interaction. He was wearing a blue blazer and noticed that the drapes were blue. So he stood in the back, right in front of the drapes, hoping Trump wouldn't notice him camouflaged against the wall. If you look at the video, Comey is standing about as far from Trump as it is physically possible to be in that room.
Go see for yourself in this video:
It almost worked — Trump didn’t seem to see him until near the very end of the ceremony. But then Trump singled him out: “Oh, and there's Jim. He’s become more famous than me!”
Wittes says Comey was “disgusted” by Trump’s attention. “He regarded the episode as a physical attempt to show closeness and warmth in a fashion calculated to compromise him before Democrats who already mistrusted him,” Wittes reports.
But Trump would soon come to resent Comey’s disinterest in winning his affection.
Mo Russia, mo problems
According to Comey’s testimony, during a private dinner he had with Trump just a week after he took office, the president repeatedly demanded that he show him “loyalty,” which he declined to agree to. Comey instead said he could offer “honesty.” After Trump tried compromising with him by asking for “honest loyalty,” Comey allegedly replied, “You will get that from me.”
But Trump and Comey never saw eye to eye on what “honest loyalty” meant. Comey clearly expected to carry on as he usually did, while Trump appeared to want absolute deference.
Comey, for example, undermined Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that President Obama had wiretapped his campaign in the runup to the election, saying the FBI had “no information” supporting it during a House Intelligence Committee hearing in March.
The heart of the tension between Trump and Comey is the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible links to Russia leading up to the 2016 election, something Comey officially confirmed in March at that same hearing. And this is the realm in which Trump appears vulnerable to charges of obstruction of justice.
According to Comey, Trump asked him in February to stop investigating the Russia associations of his disgraced national security adviser, Michael Flynn. “I hope you can let this go,” he said, according to Comey’s recollection of the conversation. Trump also requested that Comey publicly announce that Trump himself was not under investigation. (Comey refused on both counts.)
Despite all of Trump’s efforts to get Comey to curb his investigation — including reportedly asking Comey in a March phone call to see what he could do to “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigation — the FBI chief appeared undeterred. And days after requesting more resources from the Justice Department to ramp up the inquiry, he was fired.
The way he was fired is crucial as well. Initially, the administration claimed that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had determined that Comey’s credibility had been compromised by the way he had handled the Clinton saga during 2016. It might not have been convincing to much of the public, but there was a clearly discernible logic to it. But in his own commentary in the wake of the firing, Trump openly confessed that he was motivated by the feeling of being suffocated by the Russia investigation.
“Regardless of [the] recommendation, I was going to fire Comey,” he told NBC just days after the firing. “When I decided to just do it I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.’”
He also covertly expressed this logic while meeting with representatives of the very government he’s been accused of colluding with. “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off,” he boasted to Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, in an Oval Office meeting, according to the New York Times.
All of Trump’s conduct toward Comey raises huge questions over whether he’s violated the firewall that’s supposed to exist between law enforcement and politics in American government. And it’s important to remember that the main reason Comey’s hearing on Thursday is being hailed as “Washington’s Super Bowl” is not because of the Russia investigation, but because Trump has been unable to manage his outrage and anxiety over it, and recklessly violated all kinds of norms as he’s tried to deal with it. This is a crisis of his own making.
During his hearing, Comey will have an extraordinary opportunity to discuss how dangerous a precedent the president’s reaction to the Russia investigation sets for American democracy. “The hearing is as much about public perception [of the Trump presidency] as anything else,” Karen Greenberg, the director of the Center for National Security at Fordham University, told me. “I think he’s going to try to stay in charge of the narrative and guide us through the questions or the answers we need to thinking about.”
Those questions could get very, very big.