Expectations ahead of former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before a congressional panel on Thursday are high, and high expectations are easily unmet. Many believed that Comey, now a private citizen, would be unconstrained by professional courtesies and free from political compromises when delivering his testimony. Yet the released draft of Comey’s opening statement does not appear to suggest something explosive is forthcoming.
That is not to say that Comey’s testimony will be boring. According to the text released to the public on Wednesday, the former FBI director will concede that President Trump urged him and his department to “lift the cloud” that hung over his administration regarding the allegation that Russia interfered in the election on his willing (even cooperative) behalf. In rejecting this request, Comey confirmed in writing that he told the president he was not personally under investigation. Further, to comply with the president’s demand would be essentially to open an investigation into him and his conduct in 2016.
The president’s request for the FBI director to find evidence in support of a predetermined and exculpatory conclusion is unethical and immoral–but also known. Comey’s statement confirms that Donald Trump wanted the investigation into his campaign and Mike Flynn, in particular, lifted. It suggests that reports indicating Trump requested other members of his administration, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, to intervene with the FBI’s investigative processes are accurate. Nothing yet, however, indicates that anyone ever acted on these requests. Comey also confirmed that Trump asked the attorney general to limit further direct communications between himself and the president, as was also previously reported. Finally, Comey’s remarks contradict a report in ABC News suggesting that “Comey has told associates” he will dispute Trump’s claim that he was told on three separate occasions that the president was not personally under investigation. According to Comey, he did precisely that.
Maybe the most explosive claim in Comey’s prepared remarks is his recollection of a meeting with Trump in which the president said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” Comey recalled how he responded to this assertion with stony silence. The former FBI director added that he promised the president only “honesty,” causing Trump to split the difference and accept “honest loyalty.” The former FBI director concedes this moment is subject to interpretation, to say nothing of unintentional comedy, but does it rise to the level of obstruction of justice?
That and the matter of impeachment are political questions. Because impeachment is not a legal matter, any of these revelations could cause problems for the president. On May 19, the New York Times reported, and the White House did not dispute, that Donald Trump told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia’s U.S. Ambassador Sergei Kislyak that Comey was “crazy” and “a real nut job.” Trump added, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” In other words, the president believed that the “cloud” over his administration created by the investigation into Russia was real and hindering his ability to pursue the kind of bilateral relationship with Moscow he wanted.
The firing of Comey, Trump apparently believed, contributed to the dissipation of that “cloud.” It’s reasonable to infer from these comments that the president wanted that investigation to go away, either as a result of its conclusion or by hindering its progress. Constructing an article of impeachment around that claim is legitimate.
And yet, the Republican-led Congress will not be drafting that article anytime soon. Comey will have to drop a 50 megaton thermonuclear bomb in Thursday’s hearings to shatter the GOP’s resistance to impeachment. The Democrats’ objective, then, is to enliven their base voters and rally them around the notion that impeachment is the right course and that the GOP must be voted out in order for that to occur. These prepared remarks do not satisfy that objective.
The former FBI director has a habit of surprising. He revealed the existence of the previously unknown investigation into the Trump campaign in congressional testimony, so it’s not impossible that Comey will disclose new information during the question and answer session. Judging from his prepared statement, however, the expectations for the fired FBI director’s performance have been overblown. It would perhaps serve Democratic interests to undersell what they expect to hear from the FBI director tomorrow.