President Trump abruptly fired his FBI director, James Comey, in the midst of a widening investigation into possible collusion between Trump associates and Russia. Now, Comey will take the hot seat to share his side of the story for the first time publicly.
Here are three things to watch in Comey's testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.
1. Did Trump ask Comey directly to drop the Flynn investigation?
Close associates of Comey say he kept detailed memoranda for his files after his meetings with Trump, including the Feb. 27 meeting in which Trump allegedly asked Comey to stop the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and his ties to Russia. So far, it’s the word of Comey’s friends who said he wrote the memos, and the White House, which says Trump didn’t ask Comey to stop the investigation. Everyone will be watching to see whether Comey, under oath, confirms that the president did press him to drop the investigation into Flynn.
Will Comey's words offer possible evidence that Trump sought to obstruct the Russia investigation, which could have its own legal ramifications? Of course, authenticated versions of the contemporaneous memos would establish Comey’s credibility and give greater weight to the rest of his testimony. And the hearing will give lawmakers the opportunity for follow-up questions: For instance, did the president threaten Comey's job if he didn't back off the case?
Also: In a White House letter terminating Comey, Trump alleged that Comey assured him three separate times that he was not under investigation — a practice acting FBI director Andrew McCabe said would not be standard. This is something Comey plans to contradict during his testimony, according to a person familiar with his actions.
2. Who will be the White House’s defender?
Major congressional hearings usually have plenty of questioners eager to attack the administration’s credibility, but fewer senators appear willing so far to step up and take the heat for backing the White House on this. That’s because that role can end in political ruin. Sen. Edward Gurney, R-Fla., was President Richard Nixon’s strongest defender on the committee investigating Watergate-era campaign practices; he lost his bid for re-election a year later. Is there someone on the Senate Intelligence Committee armed with a strong defense of Trump and ready to challenge Comey?
So far, Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican and the committee chairman, has led a thorough and bipartisan investigation into Russia's interference in the presidential campaign. Yet on Monday night, the Republican National Committee, the party’s main political arm, released a list of questions urging senators to challenge Comey’s expected version of the story. “FBI Director Comey needs to answer a simple question about his conversations with Trump: If you were so concerned, why didn’t you act on it or notify Congress?” the statement said.
Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Marco Rubio of Florida have shown a willingness to be critical of the president, including on Russia, while Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and James Risch of Idaho will be watched to see how aggressively they challenge Comey.
A legal truism is that a good lawyer never asks a question to which he or she doesn’t already know the answer. Sometimes witnesses, even one as practiced as Comey, can provide answers that surprise the committee and take the investigation to a place they did not anticipate. Will Comey have such a moment?
Watch members like Sen. Kamala Harris, a former career prosecutor who may have higher aspirations in the Democratic Party, to potentially tease out additional information from the witness. Democrats could also use the questioning as an opportunity to press Comey about a news report that he knew a piece of key information related to his prior investigation into former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's emails was false and put forth by the Russians. The Russian intelligence claimed former attorney general Loretta Lynch had been compromised in the Clinton investigation.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson, Ray Locker, Erin Kelly