The Top 5 Questions For James Comey At This Week’s Blockbuster Hearing

FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 3, 2017, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing: "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation." (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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On Thursday, former FBI Director James Comey will testify publicly for the first time since President Trump fired him in early May and threatened to release tapes of their conversations. Unless the President invokes a claim of executive privilege to block Comey from testifying, Comey will take questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee—first in a public hearing and later in a closed session.

As a wave after wave of leaked information and wild claims about the fraught few months Comey spent as both Trump’s FBI director and the leader of the Russia investigation has inundated Washington, both the senators and the public are anxious to hear from the man himself.

Here are the top five questions looming over Comey:

Did President Trump ask you for a loyalty oath?

Following Comey’s ouster and Trump’s admission that he had decided to fire him before seeking a recommendation from the Justice Department, multiple news outlets reported that Comey and Trump had a private dinner in January, just after the inauguration, at which the president asked “whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him.” Trump, in an interview with Fox News, denied that he asked Comey for such a pledge, but said: “I don’t think it would be a bad question to ask.”

Lawmakers will undoubtedly ask Comey whether Trump did in fact ask Comey for a pledge of loyalty and whether he felt—as the New York Times reported—that this “jeopardized the F.B.I.’s independence.”

Did President Trump ask you to drop the Flynn case?

Another bombshell story that dropped in the weeks since Comey’s firing is the allegation that Trump asked Comey in a private February meeting to drop the FBI’s investigation of Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired for lying about his meetings with Russian officials. The White House has denied Trump made this request of Comey, but the New York Times reported that Comey has kept a detailed paper trail of memos documenting each of his meetings with Trump, including the one where he reportedly said of the Flynn investigation: “I hope you can let this go.”

The FBI did not let it go. Flynn remains under investigation by both Congress and the Justice Department’s special counsel, both of which are seeking his business records and testimony.

Did you tell the President that he is not under investigation?

In his letter terminating Comey, President Trump injected a bizarre aside: “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.” He doubled down on this claim in an interview on NBC, saying of his private January dinner with Comey: “I said, if it’s possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation? He said, you are not under investigation.”

Comey has not yet offered his version of how this conversation went down. Several former Justice Department and FBI officials have told TPM that it would be a serious violation of protocol for a president to ask about an investigation that at all touches his campaign or administration.

Comey is also likely to be asked whether he does in fact have memos both documenting this and his other interactions with the president.

Were there any other attempts by the President or his administration to interfere with the investigation?

The scope of the FBI’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential collusion with the Trump campaign may also include an inquiry into whether there was any obstruction of justice, and reports from the past few months allege numerous attempts by the White House to interfere in the investigation.

The day after Trump allegedly requested Comey drop the Flynn investigation, reported CNN, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus reached out to Comey and other FBI officials asking them to push back on media reports about the Russia investigation. White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed the move, saying: “We asked them to tell the truth.” Direct contact between the White House and the FBI regarding ongoing investigations is almost entirely prohibited outside of a national security crisis or other emergency.

Then, in March, Trump reportedly asked Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to state publicly that there was no evidence his campaign colluded with Russian officials. The Washington Post said both men refused to do so.

In May, a close friend of Comey’s, Lawfare writer Benjamin Wittes, recounted several conversations he had in which the FBI director expressed fear that Trump was “trying to get him on the team” by behaving in an overly familiar matter. A key example is the infamous, painfully awkward one-sided hug between the two men at the White House following the inauguration.

“Comey was disgusted,” Wittes said. “He regarded the episode as a physical attempt to show closeness and warmth in a fashion calculated to compromise him before Democrats who already mistrusted him.”

Was Comey punked by a bogus Russian document in the Clinton emails case?

Another major story that broke since Comey’s firing calls into question his previous explanation for publicly commenting last summer on the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server—mere weeks before the 2016 election.

Outlets had reported previously that emails obtained by Russian hackers cited purported communications between then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Clinton’s campaign, in which Lynch assured a campaign staffer that the Justice Department would not closely investigate the email server. Comey was allegedly concerned that the document would leak, undermining the FBI’s reputation, so he decided to get out ahead of it by making an unusual blistering announcement detailing how Clinton was “extremely careless” but announcing no charges would be filed against her.

The Washington Post reported in May, however, that many people within the U.S. intelligence community believed the document in question either contained bad intelligence or was fake. CNN later reported that Comey knew the information was bunk, but still cited it as the primary reason for his actions in a closed session with members of Congress.

Comey may be asked on Wednesday whether the purported hacked email exchange was in fact part of his decision process in making a public announcement about the Hillary investigation, and, if so, whether he knew at the time that there there were serious doubts about its veracity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.
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