WASHINGTON — In this politics-crazed city, they’re comparing it to the Super Bowl.
Bars are opening early and serving Russian vodka specials. Business are planning for distracted work forces. Senators are canceling planned announcements, knowing their proposals would be little more than media roadkill, as Washington and much of the country focuses Thursday morning on fired FBI Director James Comey and his virtual showdown with President Trump.
Comey is scheduled to testify at 10 a.m. before the Senate Intelligence Committee in his first public appearance since Trump abruptly fired him in May.
A preview of his testimony caused an early storm Wednesday afternoon when the committee posted Comey’s prepared remarks. In them, the former FBI director recounts with novelistic detail the instances in which he says Trump sought pledges of loyalty, asked him to back off one aspect of the FBI investigation into contacts between Trump allies and Russian officials, and urged Comey to publicly say the president wasn’t personally under investigation.
All could provide fuel for Trump critics who argue that the president at the very least crossed a line by trying to exert political influence over what is meant to be an independent law enforcement agency, and at worst may have obstructed a critical probe into a foreign power’s meddling in a U.S. election.
Comey’s testimony makes clear that he did in fact tell Trump he was not the target of an investigation. But it also shows that the FBI chief was uncomfortable with the pressure from his new boss from the start. He memorialized their interactions in writing, refused to offer his allegiance, and eventually asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to help him avoid any direct contact with Trump.
Many of the details he shared confirm previous news reports. Still, Comey burnishes them with drama.
“The President said, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,’” he wrote of his one-on-one dinner with Trump at the White House Jan. 27. “I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed.”
That sit-down was one of five meetings or phone calls Comey described in detail, down to the grandfather clock in the Oval Office. He tells how Trump tried to create a “patronage” relationship by trying to get Comey to ask to stay in his job, how the president complained that the Russia investigation had created a “cloud” over him, and how he urged Comey to publicly announce that the president wasn’t a target. He also confirms that Trump asked him to back off his scrutiny of Michael Flynn, the national security adviser fired for misleading statements about his meetings with Russian officials.
“It is the most shocking single document compiled about the official conduct of the public duties of any president since the release of the Watergate tapes,” Comey friend Benjamin Wittes wrote Wednesday afternoon on the Lawfare blog.
Gov. Christie, a Trump ally, downplayed the conversations as those of an outsider president who wasn’t familiar with the norms of government.
“What you’re seeing is a president who is now very publicly learning about the way people react to what he considers to be normal New York City conversation,” Christie, a former federal prosecutor, said on MSNBC.
With the prospect it could shed light on the high-stakes investigations into Russia’s attempts to influence last year’s election and questions about whether the president’s allies had a hand in any such interference, the hearing is being anticipated like a pivotal episode in a long-running series starring the reality-show president.
Television networks are preempting regular programming to focus on turf usually only covered by C-Span. Across the Capitol and much of the country, televisions and smart phones Thursday are expected to tune in. More than 150 reporters and photographers had requested access, including some from Swedish and Dutch news outlets.
The event is drawing comparisons to the kind of high-profile hearings that come around rarely. Think Oliver North testifying on Iran-contra in 1987 (his testimony drew more viewers than even the soap opera General Hospital) and Anita Hill in 1991, when 20 million tuned in as she spoke about sexual harassment at the hands of then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
And Trump aides are bracing for the prospect of a presidential tweet-storm in response to a man he has derided as a “showboat.” Trump also has an afternoon speech planned.
“It could be a historic moment for Donald Trump and the American presidency, and one that ranks with a number of other times testimony before Congress has brought about big political shifts,” Princeton political historian Julian Zelizer wrote on CNN.com.
Patricia Phalen, who has studied the intersection of politics and popular culture at George Washington University, said the build-up to the hearing reflects “the pop-culturization of politics,” which she argues has risen as late-night entertainers and others have taken sharp aim at Trump.
Comey arrives at the hearing as a divisive if not central figure in the drama of the 2016 presidential race. He’ll testify as Russia investigations continue in both chambers of Congress and, at the Justice Department, under the direction of Robert Mueller, his FBI predecessor now serving as special counsel to handle the politically-charged inquiry.
Senators in both parties have been gearing up for their chances to question Comey ever since his dismissal and news reports of Trump urging Comey to drop his scrutiny of Flynn. Comey’s testimony asserts that he understood Trump’s request to be limited to Flynn, and not about stopping the entire probe. “Regardless,” Comey wrote, “it was very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.”
When Trump fired Comey last month, he and his aides initially cited Comey’s handling last year of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
But that explanation quickly melted away. Trump added fuel to the controversy when he explained the decision to NBC News by citing “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia” that he argued “is a made-up story.” (Numerous U.S. intelligence agencies and congressional leaders from both parties say Russia did attempt to influence the election, though there are still questions about whether Trump’s campaign collaborated in it.)
The president and former FBI director seemed to have been circling one another ever since.
Trump told Russian officials visiting the Oval Office that Comey was “a nut job” and that his dismissal had relieved “great pressure.”
And he seemed to threaten Comey, writing on Twitter that he “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
Days later came a New York Times report that Comey had written a memo memorializing a meeting in which Trump urged him to drop the Flynn inquiry, asking him to “let this go.”
The explosive revelation figures to be a central issue in a day with few parallels on Capitol Hill.
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