Former FBI Director James Comey released his prepared opening statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. It answers a lot of questions, but raises still others.
The testimony details that Trump asked for Comey’s “loyalty” at one meeting and for Comey to “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigation on another occasion. Comey’s remarks will also include a detailed account of Trump’s attempts to get him to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, with Trump reportedly calling the investigation “very concerning.”
Senate Democrats want to know more. In particular, they want Comey to go into greater detail about some of the stories he recounts in his memo — with the intention of getter closer to understanding whether President Trump’s actions amount to obstructing justice in an FBI investigation.
“This is about fleshing out what he’s put on the record. Because what he’s put on the record is quite remarkable,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), one of the members on the Senate Intelligence Committee, in an interview Wednesday afternoon.
Over the course of this week, I spoke with three Senate Democratic staffers close to the committee and five senators who are members about what they believe will be asked at the testimony. Senate Republicans said they were eager to learn Comey’s accounting of events. “I don’t know what [Comey’s] story is; I haven’t heard it yet. But I’m interested in finding out,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), a committee member, said in an interview near his office on Tuesday. “We need to get the facts here and find out who, if anyone, did anything wrong.”
Many of those facts are revealed in the prepared remarks, but that’s not all Democrats want to know. Below are six questions that Senate Democrats expect to come up at tomorrow’s hearing.
1) Did Comey feel “pressured” by Trump to back off of Flynn?
Even before Comey’s statement surfaced, the New York Times had reported that Trump directly asked the then-FBI director to drop his investigation into Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser.
Comey will confirm tomorrow that Trump told him Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong in talking to the Russians. “He is a good guy and has been through a lot,” Trump said, according to Comey. “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.” Comey plans to reply that his only reply was, “He is a good guy.”
But beyond this factual assertion of events, Comey has not provided his personal reaction to Trump’s request. In his statements, he implies that he didn’t let the ask slow his investigation. But Senate Democrats want to know if Comey personally felt “pressured” to back off of Flynn.
“I want to understand the context of the meetings between the president and Director Comey and what [Comey] thought the goal of those was. And if he felt pressured to back off of an active law enforcement investigation — if he felt like he was getting pressure not to investigate Michael Flynn,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) told me. “And that would be wildly inappropriate.”
Added Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat: “We’ve got to get into more detail about Comey’s conversations with the president. Some of the things he didn’t get into detail on — maybe he can’t. But the more information we can get from him to fill in these conversations, the better.”
2) Was Comey’s investigation successfully impeded?
Similarly, Comey’s memo contains a detailed account of the interactions he had with Trump about the FBI’s investigation into Flynn. But the opening remarks do not address whether Comey believes Trump was successful in impeding the investigation.
“Did the president try to interfere with the conduct of the investigation into foreign interference in our election? That’s the beginning, middle, and end,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) in an interview.
According to one staffer close to the committee, this will be one question near the top of Senate Democrats’ mind — not just if Trump tried to obstruct the investigation, but if he may have actually done so in any meaningful way.
It seems unlikely Comey will answer that question, given that sources close to him have said he won’t address the obstruction of justice charge. But Democrats are preparing to try anyway.
3) Can Comey say more about how he interpreted the “loyalty” pledge?
As Vox’s Andrew Prokop writes, Comey also plans to confirm a report from the New York Times that on January 27, Trump invited him for a private dinner and asked him for his “loyalty.” At the dinner, Trump reportedly told Comey, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” in the context of a conversation about Comey remaining in his position.
The dinner, Comey says, was, “at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship.”
Senate Democrats say they want to press Comey further on how he interprets this “patronage relationship.” They also want to know more about the nature of the conversation over Comey’s “loyalty.” What kind of understanding did Comey think Trump was envisioning? What was Trump’s tone of voice when he suggested that he expected loyalty? How did Comey interpret this extraordinary request?
“We just need to get to the bottom of whether what is represented there is accurate. And if it’s accurate, it’s devastating,” Heinrich told me. “I don’t think the FBI director uses a phrase like ‘patronage relationship’ lightly. There is no room in our democracy for a loyalty test for law enforcement officials.”
4) What about those secret “tapes”?
Shortly after Comey was fired, Trump began insinuating publicly that he had “tapes” of his conversations with the FBI director. On Twitter, Trump appeared to threaten to release those tapes if Comey started “leaking to the press.”
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
Since then, the White House has refused to confirm or deny whether Trump secretly recorded his conversations with Comey, with Sean Spicer simply saying at a press conference in May that the president “has nothing further to add on that.” The existence of the tapes — as well as their number and content — will almost certainly come up on Thursday. There’s no mention of them in Comey’s opening statement.
“They’ll ask, ‘Do you know if he did that? And if he did, do you think he violated the law?’” one Senate Democratic aide said.
5) Is Comey confident Robert Mueller will get the job done?
Senate Democrats may also ask Comey on whether he has confidence that Robert Mueller, appointed special counsel to probe any possible Trump-Russia ties, can effectively carry out his investigation.
Right now, House Democrats and other critics are alleging that Trump successfully obstructed justice with regards to the FBI probe. Much of Comey’s own testimony on Thursday will also support that notion.
If that’s the case, then why would Comey have faith that Mueller can independently carry out his investigation? “Was your investigation impeded? And if you were, what confidence do you have that Mueller won’t be?” one aide to a Democratic senator on the committee said. “None of that was addressed in the memo.”
6) What about Jared Kushner’s meetings with Russian banks? Who in the White House knew about them, and when did they know it?
The bulk of the hearing, sources say, is expected to center on allegations of Trump’s obstruction of justice. But at least some questions may turn on the Russia investigation itself.
For instance, it’s become increasingly clear that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, is a target in federal investigators’ probe. In particular, the Washington Post has reported that Kushner met with Russian banker Sergey Gorkov during the presidential transition to set up a secret back channel with the Kremlin.
Vox’s Alexia Fernández Campbell runs down the different legal risks associated with that meeting. But Senate Democrats on the committee will also likely ask Comey who else in the White House knew about Kushner’s rendezvous with Gorkov — and whether anyone else signed off on it.
Just how many people approved of Kushner attending the meeting? As Fernández Campbell writes, Kushner could face serious legal trouble for attending a meeting with a foreign bank executive whose company was under sanctions and talking about lending money to the bank. Was the purpose of the meeting vetted by White House counsel Don McGahn? Did the president know Kushner was standing in as his emissary at the meeting? And if nobody else knew about it, does that mean Kushner set up these meetings on his own?
As former Trump transition chief Chris Christie put it:
Christie: "Most people want to hear from Jared Kushner."— Eli Stokols (@EliStokols) June 7, 2017
We’ve already seen reporting that nothing in the White House is straightforward. What Comey talks about may reveal additional information about the Trump team’s Russia ties, and he could choose Thursday, while in front of the cameras, to unveil at least some of it.