If all of Washington will tune in Thursday as fired FBI Director James Comey testifies about the tense and politically fraught series of conversations he had with Donald Trump, perhaps no one will watch more closely, or with more at stake, than Trump himself.
The president, who often spends hours watching the news alone, will monitor the testimony as time allows in a White House dining room with his legal team and his closest advisers by his side, two aides said. Trump has nothing on his public schedule until 12:30 p.m., when he’ll deliver a speech to a group of evangelicals.
His aides wouldn’t say whether the president will offer his trademark commentary on Twitter — or instead leave the rebuttal to a rapid-response team the White House assembled to blast out push-back to Comey’s assertions.
Even before the hearing convened, the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee began churning out competing spin on Comey’s testimony. Republicans said Comey “plays fast and loose with the truth.” Democrats said his opening remarks alone showed Trump had lied four times about his interactions with the former FBI director.
The president’s friends and advisers stand firm in their conviction that Trump has done nothing wrong with regard to Russia, that the investigation and surrounding theater has been a witch hunt and that he should defend himself as aggressively as he sees fit.
“He’s been under siege from almost Day One and he wants to respond,” said Chris Ruddy, a close friend and chief executive of Newsmax.com.
In his opening statement released Wednesday, Comey said that Trump demanded his personal loyalty and asked him to back down from an investigation of fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
The early evidence of the Trump response team’s work was demonstrated Wednesday, when some of the president’s allies offered similar talking points to rebut the charge that the president improperly tried to shut down the Flynn investigation. The defense boils down to: that’s how Trump talks. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said on MSNBC it was “a normal New York City conversation.”
The talking point was reminiscent of one Trump used to explain his crude comments toward women captured on an Access Hollywood tape that came to light during the campaign. At that time, Trump and numerous surrogates dismissed the comments with the same three words: “locker-room talk.”
The focus on Flynn inadvertently revealed how concerned Trump’s team is about Comey’s allegations related to that investigation — potentially the single most damaging of Comey’s charges, because of the suggestion Trump committed obstruction of justice.
On Thursday morning, they got a preview of how Senate Democrats plan to approach Comey. Comey’s prepared testimony shows Trump operating in “violation of clear guidelines put in place after Watergate to prevent any whiff of political interference by the White House into FBI investigations,” Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner said in excerpts of his prepared opening statement.
Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said Comey’s prepared testimony “is disturbing” and that, regardless of the outcome of the panel’s Russia investigation, “Comey’s firing and his testimony raise separate and troubling questions that we must get to the bottom of.”
Warner also said Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers at Wednesday’s hearing “had plenty of opportunities to deny” reports that Trump pressured them to downplay Russia probe or intervene with Comey and “they did not” deny it.
Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, said on MSNBC that Comey’s testimony is “quite shocking” and goes toward a case of obstruction but “whether it’s sufficient I think has yet to be determined.” It will be crucial, he said, to know “who can corroborate this account” and what Trump asked the directors of national intelligence, the National Security Agency and the CIA to do in relation to Comey or the Russia investigation.
The White House pre-emptively tried to put a positive spin on Comey’s opening statement. His private lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, said Trump felt “completely and totally vindicated” after Comey revealed that he told Trump he was not the subject of a counter-intelligence investigation.
In the hearing room, Trump is counting on loyal Republicans to confront Comey, with members of his team also planning to compare his remarks to Comey’s May congressional testimony for evidence of possible perjury. Senators John Cornyn of Texas — who seriously considered taking Comey’s job — and Jim Risch of Idaho are expected to question Comey aggressively, pursuing lines of inquiry favorable to the White House.
Republicans on the committee are expected to ask why Comey didn’t bring his concerns about Trump to Congress, and may try to undermine him by recalling his widely criticized handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.
Meanwhile, the decision to go with an outside counsel, Kasowitz, for matters related to the Russia investigation essentially shifted responsibility for answering related questions outside the White House communications shop. Kasowitz was at the White House on Wednesday.
The White House has sought to keep Trump occupied and focused on his domestic agenda leading up to Comey’s testimony. His aides dubbed this week “Infrastructure Week” and rolled out more details of his long-promised $1 trillion plan to rebuild roads, waterways and airports. He flew to Cincinnati on Wednesday for a speech about the plan before a friendly audience in a state that strongly supported his election.
He’ll speak at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference in the afternoon on Thursday, a gathering of evangelicals that Trump’s allies regard as a serendipitous bit of planning. The event should offer the beleaguered president a friendly audience, and his aides said they expect zero mention of Comey in his remarks.
Also on Wednesday, Trump named a new FBI director, Christopher A. Wray, a defense attorney and former U.S. assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s criminal division, an appointment that depicted Comey as old news.
But it is the words of the old FBI director that will substantially determine the trajectory of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Comey’s opening remarks, while laced with jarring details of his encounters with Trump, provided no new information about the Russia or Flynn investigations. Those hoping for either Trump’s indictment or his exoneration may well be disappointed, if a hearing framed as a clarifying moment ends in an unsatisfying stalemate.