FBI director James Comey will be back on the hot seat Monday when he testifies before Congress about Russian attempts to disrupt the American election. Actually, “back on” might imply wrongly that he has ever been off.
Since July, when he made his first pronouncement on the FBI investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails, Comey’s been living on that seat. During that time, he has been a hero to Democrats, a villain to Republicans, a villain to Democrats, a hero to Republicans.
Democrats blame Comey for costing Clinton the election. They now count on him for the information to finally tear apart President Donald Trump’s tweeted allegations that President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap on Trump Tower in New York during the campaign.
But Comey’s reality is that as he settles down to address the House Intelligence Committee in the first public testimony about intelligence issues surrounding the past election, he’s returning to a place that is frequently angry at him, and constantly calling on him to return.
As one congressional aide joked after the announcement of yet another Comey appearance, “If he’s kept his punch card, I think one more visit and he gets a free sandwich.”
Comey won’t be the only person testifying Monday. Adm. Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, will also be questioned and is expected to have just as much information.
How much the men will share is unknown.
The hearing marks the beginning of the public process to determine whether there’s fire beneath the smoke covering the nation’s capital these days. The investigations underway in the House and Senate Intelligence committees, as well as in other congressional panels, including the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Government Oversight Committee, are dealing with a wide range of issues.
Recent headlines and statements have focused on whether Obama ordered Trump Tower to be wiretapped during the campaign. There is little belief, even among Trump loyalists, that Trump’s tweeted accusations will be vindicated.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said as much recently when asked what he expects from the hearing. “I’ve been very clear,” he said. “There was no physical wiretap.”
But the Trump Tower wiretap claim is really a sidelight to the main investigation. The big question revolves around whether Russia interfered in the American elections, as the U.S. intelligence community concluded in a January report. And if it did, did anyone in Russia work with – “colluded” is the preferred word – anyone in the Trump campaign in that effort.
That’s the reason behind the focus on communications between Trump’s inner circle and Russian officials. So when Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Trump’s short-lived national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is found to have talked with a Russian ambassador – and in Flynn’s case accepted more than $33,000 from the television station RT, which U.S. intelligence has labeled the “Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” – congressional officials think it requires investigation.
Comey’s public testimony is just the first step in that process, which Nunes insists is part of the investigation, not a show of already known facts. “We’re looking for answers to a number of questions,” he said. “That’s what I expect: answers.”
Congressional investigators to date have been allowed to review material that supported the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia meddled in the election, hacking into Democratic computers and distributing the pirated contents via WikiLeaks, to benefit Trump and hurt Clinton. But they’ve had to trek to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to do it and were permitted to take notes only by hand. Nunes said the committee had requested permission to use computers in the process.
The senior Democrat on Nunes’ committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank, California, thinks the Trump wiretap allegations will be quickly cleared up. After that, he’s not certain what information will emerge.
Perhaps the committee will want to see Trump’s tax returns to determine whether the president has Russian financial entanglements.
The committee also will probe a series of leaks that Nunes in particular thinks were serious violations of U.S. law on the handling of classified information. Who might have leaked, for example, that Flynn had been recorded talking to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak is one question the committee would like to answer.
Throughout, Comey is expected to remain a fixture before the committee, in public on Monday and many other times behind closed doors. And not just the House committee. The Senate Intelligence Committee has scheduled its own first public hearing on the Russia question for March 30, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., says he has a promise that Comey will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer two questions: Did any U.S. court issue an order allowing the Trump campaign to be bugged and is there an open criminal investigation into Trump or his associates?
The House Intelligence Committee will follow up this public hearing with another, expected on March 28. At that hearing, John Brennan, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency under Obama; James Clapper, Obama’s director of national intelligence, and Sally Yates, who as acting attorney general told the White House on Jan. 23 that Flynn had been overheard talking to the Russian ambassador on Dec. 29, are expected to testify.