Comey expected to stay mum on obstruction
Washington — Fired FBI Director James Comey will publicly describe conversations with Donald Trump but stop short of saying if he thinks the president sought to obstruct a federal probe of Russia’s role in the 2016 election, according to a person familiar with Comey’s thinking.
Comey will describe in detail many of his interactions with Trump during a closely watched Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday, according to the person. He has already coordinated his testimony with Robert Mueller, another former FBI chief who’s now special counsel in charge of the Russian investigations, the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity in advance of the hearing.
Asked about Comey’s testimony, Trump on Tuesday was tight-lipped: “I wish him luck,” he told reporters before a meeting with lawmakers.
In other matters, Reality Leigh Winner, a 25-year-old government contractor, remained locked up Tuesday on federal charges that she mailed a classified report to an online news outlet.
The Justice Department announced the Georgia woman’s arrest Monday as The Intercept reported that it had obtained a classified report suggesting Russian hackers attacked a U.S. voting software supplier days before last year’s presidential election. Winner was scheduled to appear before a federal judge Thursday for a detention hearing.
On Thursday, Comey in his first public appearance since being dismissed is expected to address several controversies, including whether Trump pressured him to drop an inquiry into fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. He’ll also probably discuss the president’s claim that Comey assured him on three occasions that he wasn’t the subject of any investigation.
“The hot gases of politics will be swirling around that room on Thursday,” said Ronald Hosko, a former senior FBI agent. “I think everybody’s who’s watching intently on Thursday will be making credibility assessments.”
Comey’s testimony comes less than a month after Trump abruptly fired him, a move that the White House initially attributed to Comey’s handling of the FBI probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email system last year. But Trump later said the Russian investigation was on his mind when he made the decision, which spawned a series of damaging leaks that the White House has struggled to recover from.
Highly awaited testimony
The hearing on Thursday promises to be a pivotal moment for Trump’s presidency, with the major television networks carrying it live. Comey’s most recent appearances before Congress delivered political bombshells including public confirmation that the Russia probe extended to whether anyone close to Trump colluded with Moscow, as well as the FBI chief’s defense of his decisions in the Clinton email investigation.
Hosko, now president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, said he doesn’t expect Comey to bring to the hearing detailed memos he wrote after his meetings with Trump.
“You’re going to have senators who probably challenge Comey to some extent because they don’t like what he’s done in the past,” Hosko said. “I would look for Comey to be circumspect and very deliberate in his descriptions of meetings so as to not to taint any future potential testimony.”
The White House on Monday said it wouldn’t invoke executive privilege to block Comey from discussing his interactions with Trump, easing concerns that the president might seek to disrupt the hearing. Some legal experts questioned whether the White House could even pursue that claim.
Meanwhile, Trump’s White House and its allies are crafting a strategy aimed at undermining Comey’s credibility. Both White House officials and an outside group that backs Trump plan to hammer Comey in the coming days for misstatements he made about Clinton’s emails during his last appearance on Capitol Hill.
An ad created by the pro-Trump Great America Alliance also casts Comey as a “showboat” who was “consumed with election meddling” instead of focusing on combating terrorism. The 30-second spot is slated to run digitally on Wednesday and appear the next day on CNN and Fox News.
The Republican National Committee has been preparing talking points ahead of the hearing. An RNC research email Monday issued a challenge to the lawmakers who will question Comey. There’s bipartisan agreement, the email says, that Comey “needs to answer a simple question about his conversations with President Trump: If you were so concerned, why didn’t you act on it or notify Congress?”
Since Comey was ousted May 9, Trump and Comey allies have traded competing narratives about their interactions. The president asserted that Comey told him three times that he was not personally under investigation, while the former director’s associates allege Trump asked Comey if he could back off an investigation into Flynn, who was fired as national security adviser because he misled the White House about his ties to Russia.
Democrats have accused Trump of firing Comey to upend the FBI’s Russia probe, which focused in large part on whether campaign aides coordinated with Moscow to hack Democratic groups during the election. Days after Comey’s firing, the Justice Department appointed Mueller to oversee the federal investigation.
Despite the mounting legal questions now shadowing the White House, Trump has needled Comey publicly. In a tweet days after the firing, he appeared to warn Comey that he might have recordings of their private discussions, something the White House has neither confirmed nor denied.
No defense strategy?
White House officials appear eager to keep the president away from television and Twitter Thursday, though those efforts rarely succeed. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the president plans to attend an infrastructure summit in the morning, then address the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference at 12:30 p.m.
“The president’s got a full day on Thursday,” Spicer said.
The White House had hoped to set up a “war room” stocked with Trump allies and top-flight lawyers to combat questions about the FBI and congressional investigations into possible ties between the campaign and Russia. However, that effort has largely stalled, both because of a lack of decision-making in the West Wing and concerns among some potential recruits about joining a White House under the cloud of investigation.
“If there isn’t a strategy, a coherent, effective one, this is really going to put us all behind the eight ball. We need to start fighting back. And so far, I don’t see a lot of fight,” said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign aide.
Still, Trump supporters say they are willing to step in to help the White House deflect any accusations from Comey.
“If we feel he crosses a line, we’ll fire back,” said Ed Rollins, chief strategist of Great America PAC, the political arm of the group airing the Comey ad.
Rollins and others with Great America say they plan to stand up for Trump in cable appearances Thursday.
He said the White House has “improved” its communications with surrogates, starting with the president’s recent trip abroad, and frequently holds call-ins to discuss what story lines they’d like to push.
“I assume they’ll do the same thing with this,” Rollins said of the Comey hearing. However, he added, he had not heard from the White House about the Comey hearing as of midday Tuesday.
Associated Press contributed.