- By David FrancisDavid Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance., Elias GrollElias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering cyberspace and its conflicts and controversies. He has written for the magazine since 2012 and is a graduate of Harvard University.
Former FBI Director James Comey will tell a Senate panel Thursday that President Donald Trump pressured him to drop the bureau’s investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, according to prepared remarks released Wednesday.
Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee comes as U.S. spy chiefs refused on Wednesday to answer questions about their own conversations with Trump, which reportedly involved separate entreaties from the president to scupper the FBI investigation of Flynn.
According to Comey, Trump told the FBI director in a March 30 phone call that “he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia,” referring to an unverified intelligence report alleging Russian prostitutes urinated on a bed — while Trump watched — in a hotel room where former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, once slept. Trump has denied this, claiming he’s a “germaphobe.”
Comey also is expected to testify that he was so unnerved by his first meeting with the president that he immediately “began to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting. Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward. This had not been my practice in the past.”
He noted that he spoke with Trump nine times in four months, compared with just two conversations with Obama.
During the first meeting between the two men, on Jan. 6 at Trump Tower in New York City, Comey informed Trump that he was not under investigation, and the president-elect later urged the FBI chief to go public with that information. According to Comey’s prepared remarks, Trump repeatedly pressured him to help lift what he described as the “cloud” over his administration by offering a public statement that Trump was not under investigation. Comey refused.
In addition, during a Jan. 27 dinner, Trump asked if Comey wanted to stay on as FBI director, which Comey interpreted as an effort to “create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch.” Comey said he replied that he intended to serve his term. “A few moments later, the President said, ‘I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.’ I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.”
Nearing the end of the dinner, Trump returned to the subject, Comey recounts. “He then said, ‘I need loyalty.’ I replied, ‘You will always get honesty from me.’ He paused and then said, ‘That’s what I want — honest, loyalty.’ I paused and then said, ‘You will get that from me.’”
Based on those prepared remarks and earlier reporting, here’s what we should, and should not, expect Thursday:
Comey won’t accuse Trump of obstruction of justice. Multiple reports indicate that Comey will not accuse the president of the crime. “He is not going to Congress to make accusations about the president’s intent; instead, he’s there to share his concerns,” a source told ABC News. Rather, Comey is expected to tell the Senate Intelligence Committee that Trump’s request to take it easy on Flynn “made him uneasy.”
But he will dispute Trump’s version of events. Trump has claimed that Comey told him multiple times that he was not under investigation. However, sources close to Comey told CNN that the former FBI chief is expected to tell the panel that his conversations with Trump were much more nuanced. This will be the first on-the-record detailed account of the president’s communications with law enforcement over the Russian investigation and the first chance for Comey to publicly respond to the Trump administration’s criticisms.
The White House won’t stand in Comey’s way. Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said that the president would not invoke executive privilege to limit Comey’s testimony. But Trump has made clear how he feels about the nation’s former top cop. Trump has called Comey a “showboat” in a television interview and a “nut job” in a meeting with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Comey has a tale to tell. Despite the fact that he’s not expected to accuse the president of a crime, Comey has colorful details of his interactions with the president. Notes he took after meeting with Trump show the president made him uncomfortable by asking for his loyalty and in his attempts to influence the Russian investigation.
It’s going to be a media circus. All three major U.S. networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — plan on televising the hearing live, a rare decision for congressional testimony. With CNN and Fox News counting down to Comey’s appearance for days, a packed congressional press gallery, and wall-to-wall cable coverage, it’s going to be hard to avoid watching Comey testify. Some bars in Washington are even opening early to televise the event.
Don’t expect Trump to stay silent. The White House has already put the world on notice that Trump may tweet during the testimony. Trump has also scheduled a speech addressing religious conservatives around the same time that Comey speaks, a clever bit of counterprogramming from the former reality TV star.
Tune in Thursday at 10 a.m. EST to watch.
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