He upended the presidential election twice. Now Democrats are pinning their hopes on the man many of them blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss to deliver a major blow to Donald Trump’s credibility.
FBI Director James Comey is set to face probing questions Monday about Russia’s involvement in the presidential election at a highly anticipated public appearance before the House Intelligence Committee. He’s expected to be asked to confirm or deny the existence of criminal investigations into Trump or his campaign aides over ties to Moscow, though several committee members said Comey will likely decline to comment because doing so could undermine active probes.
Key lawmakers in both parties say they will demand that the FBI director clear up, once and for all, Trump’s explosive claim that President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower in the run-up to the election, according to interviews with more than a half-dozen members of the intelligence panel.
Democrats on the committee still smarting over Comey’s double cameo in the election that even some Trump allies acknowledge gave Trump a big boost are hoping it will amount to a stinging rebuke for the president from a trusted member of his own executive branch.
No matter what he says, the controversy-prone FBI director is guaranteed to anger one side or the other.
If he goes mum, he would open himself to charges of hypocrisy from congressional Democrats, after Comey’s pre-election announcement that the FBI had discovered new Clinton-related emails and was reviewing them. The emails ultimately did not change the FBI’s recommendation not to pursue criminal charges.
But if Comey rebuts Trump’s bugging claim, he could incur the wrath of a notoriously thin-skinned president.
“If he publicly refutes it, I think that it sends a message to the president that he can’t make baseless accusations without being called on it,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat. “I think he can be the exclamation point at the end of this.”
Trump triggered the wiretapping controversy with a series of tweets on March 4. The president wrote that he “just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory,” likening Obama’s actions to “McCarthyism” and calling the former president a “bad (or sick) guy.”
Since then, the White House has sought to recast Trump’s remarks, saying they weren’t meant to be taken literally and should be interpreted as a broad reference to any surveillance of Trump or his campaign aides.
Rep. Devin Nunes, who chairs the intelligence panel, said Friday that while the president’s claim was wrong that Trump Tower was wiretapped, it’s clear that some Trump associates were at least under inadvertent surveillance. The California Republican pointed to former national security adviser Michael Flynn, whose phone calls with Russia’s ambassador were intercepted by the U.S. government and led to his firing last month.
“It was wrong from the beginning if you literally think President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower,” Nunes said. “That never happened. It was not even possible of happening. I think what they’re trying to say is, were there other techniques that were used?”
Earlier this month, Comey asked the Justice Department to publicly disavow Trump’s tweets, according to The New York Times. The department has not done so. The big question now is whether Comey, who has a reputation for fierce independence, will take it upon himself on Monday to issue his own public disavowal.
The hearing begins at 10 a.m. and is scheduled to last three hours. National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers is also scheduled to testify.
Lawmakers from both parties said they intend to press Comey on the wiretapping allegation.
“The American people deserve to know whether that’s true or not,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), who chairs an intelligence panel subcommittee on defense intelligence. “If it’s not true, they need to know about it. If it is true, they need to know about it.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee’s CIA oversight subpanel, said that if Comey contradicts Trump, it would be a major credibility issue for the president.
“It was such a deceitful claim by the president that I hope Director Comey clears it up once and for all that what we all suspect is true, and what the evidence so far has shown, which is that it did not occur, that President Obama did not order the wiretapping of candidate Trump,” Swalwell said.
He and other Democrats acknowledged the possibility that Comey’s testimony on Monday could cause Trump, notoriously vengeful toward those who he perceives as undermining him, to lash out at his FBI director. They noted that it would be extraordinary, though, for Trump to fire Comey, who began his 10-year term in 2013. Only one FBI director has ever been dismissed by a president William Sessions, who was removed in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton after the release of a scathing ethics report.
“It would be very unusual for the president to lash out that way,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), a member of the intelligence panel. “Then again, this president has shown an unusual streak.”
Comey’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee is part of the panel’s larger investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. The committee is holding another public hearing on March 28 with members of the Obama administration, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who was fired by Trump in January after refusing to defend his first travel ban executive order in court.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is also investigating Russia’s election meddling and has scheduled a public hearing for March 30.
Separately, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) last week threatened to hold up the nomination of Rodney Rosenstein as deputy attorney general until his panel receives a briefing from Comey on any Russia-related investigations.
Both congressional intelligence committees are looking into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow as part of their investigations an issue Stewart said he hopes Comey will tackle on Monday.
“We want information on any investigations that are taking place,” said the Republican congressman. “There’s this story that the president was elected because of the influence of a foreign government. If that’s true, once again, that’s an enormous story, has enormous implications. The American people deserve to know whether that is true, as well.”