Countdown Clocks, Morning Cocktails As Former FBI Director Prepares To Testify

Jun 7, 2017
Originally published on June 7, 2017 11:42 pm

TV networks have deployed countdown clocks. People are tweeting about places to watch and whether they'll offer morning cocktail specials. Congressional aides report that demand for seats inside the Senate hearing room has reached levels not seen for decades.

Anticipation is building for testimony from fired FBI Director James Comey, not least in the White House, where the president and his aides worry the telegenic former law enforcement leader could inflict both political and legal wounds.

What Comey might say

Friends and associates of the former FBI director described Comey as shocked that news of his firing came from a television screen, while he was speaking to agents in California last month. Just three years into a 10-year-term, Comey's associates said he had no inkling he was on the verge of losing his job, especially not while the Bureau was in the middle of investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential contest.

Comey did, however, have an uneasy feeling about President Trump, friends said. This year, he chronicled his conversations with Trump in a series of contemporaneous memos. One reflected his concern about Trump's alleged request to back off from the investigation of his former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Comey also told associates the president had tried to get him to pledge "loyalty" on multiple occasions this year, a pledge the FBI director declined to make.

The White House has changed its public rationale for firing Comey, first blaming his mishandling of the Hillary Clinton email probe and pointing to recommendations from leaders at the Justice Department. But then the president told an interviewer he got rid of Comey because of "this Russia thing." And the New York Times went on to report Trump had told Russian officials in the Oval Office the day after the dismissal that Comey was a "nut job" and firing him had "taken off" pressure over his campaign's contacts with Russia.

Of course, the opposite happened. Comey's dismissal triggered the deputy attorney general to appoint a special counsel to investigate Russian interference.

What Comey will avoid

The fired FBI director has been in contact with the special counsel, who happens to be his predecessor at the FBI, Robert Mueller III. Comey may testify about his confidence that Russian hackers targeted American institutions last year, but he's expected to steer clear of details about the ongoing Russia investigation in his hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Legal experts said that makes sense, because as a former prosecutor, Comey understands he should not take steps to complicate the ongoing criminal probe.

So, don't get your hopes up for a discussion about retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn's request for immunity, the fate of Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort or what the former FBI director knows about meetings between Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and Russia's ambassador last year. Comey may be more willing to discuss his dealings with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who backed the White House decision to fire him.

Comey's greatest hits

There's a reason why people are eager to hear Comey tell his side of the story. For a man who's spent most of his adult life pursuing law and order, he's an unusually vivid communicator.

People sat up and listened when he likened the influence of Islamic State social media accounts on young Western recruits to "a devil on their shoulder all day long saying, 'kill, kill, kill.'"

Reporters and congressional aides still recall, from memory, exact passages from Comey's 2007 congressional testimony about racing up the steps of a hospital to interdict George W. Bush White House officials seeking to bypass him in a surveillance dispute and get to the ailing attorney general, John Ashcroft.

He once blamed the FBI's challenge in recruiting cyber talent on its prohibition on marijuana use. "I have to hire a great workforce to compete with those cyber criminals and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview," he said. Comey later clarified that was a joke after then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., offered criticism.

Some of his greatest hits are memorable for other reasons. Days before he was fired, Comey told lawmakers he was "mildly nauseous" about the idea his actions in the Clinton email probe may have swayed the 2016 presidential election.

How the Trump administration may push back

President Trump called James Comey "a showboat" and "a grandstander" after the firing. "I wish him luck," Trump told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday of the former FBI director's looming testimony.

White House adviser Kellyanne Conway emphasized to NBC this week that Comey wouldn't win any popularity contests. "Most of Washington, of course many of the Democrats, detested this man until Donald Trump fired him, which Jim Comey said in his own goodbye letter was the right of the president to do," Conway said.

She added that Comey had to correct his testimony about the Clinton email probe just days before he was fired, causing the FBI to "scurry" and send a letter to Congress to fix it. Comey misstated facts about some emails the FBI discovered on a computer belonging to Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of Clinton's close aide Huma Abedin.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded that Comey's handling of the email probe was more than an isolated mistake. "I cannot defend the Director's handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton's emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken," he wrote in a memo.

What happens next

Other committees in Congress have been angling for the fired FBI director's testimony, but it's not clear that he will accept those invitations, at least not anytime soon.

The congressional probes in the House and Senate into Russian election interference are proceeding, as is the special counsel investigation. But it could be many months, if not years, for a full accounting.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


Tomorrow morning, in one of the most anticipated congressional appearances in recent memory former, FBI Director James Comey will testify before the Senate intelligence committee. The committee raised the stakes even higher by releasing the prepared statement of what the fired FBI director will say about his contacts with President Trump. This evening, a lawyer for Trump released a statement saying the president feels completely and totally vindicated.

NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following the controversy. She's with us now to talk about it. Hi, Carrie.


SIEGEL: The Senate intelligence committee has released James Comey's opening statement, the beginning of his testimony for tomorrow. What's new in it?

JOHNSON: Well, James Comey says he had nine conversations in just four months with President Trump, and after each one of them, Robert, he decided to take notes. The first time during the transition, he left Trump Tower in New York, returned to his FBI car and jotted down notes on a laptop.

Then, the next meeting a week after the inauguration, Comey describes a dinner that President Trump invited him to attend. To Comey's surprise, the table in the Green Room was set for two. The president asked Comey if he wanted to keep his job, which Comey interpreted as pressure. Then Trump allegedly said, I need loyalty; I expect loyalty. Comey says he didn't reply. They stared at each other in silence. And according to Comey, Trump kept up that pressure for months.

SIEGEL: Pressure of what sort?

JOHNSON: Well, pressure like Trump pulling him aside after a meeting in February at the White House, asking others to leave the room, then, according to Comey, telling him, I hope you can see your way clear to letting National Security Adviser Michael Flynn go. In other words, drop the investigation into false statements Flynn allegedly made, not the broader Russia investigation.

Comey said he was concerned. He mentioned it to the attorney general, said he didn't want to be left alone with Trump any more. But he was. In fact, Donald Trump called Comey two more times. Comey says the president was fixated on getting the word out that he, Trump, was not personally under investigation. And Trump described the Russia investigation as a cloud hanging over his presidency. Comey says he had nine meetings or talks with Trump. He only describes five of them here. So we'll find out more tomorrow about those other ones.

SIEGEL: Yeah, he says Trump wanted the word to get out that he, Trump, was not under investigation. Was President Trump under investigation?

JOHNSON: Not directly, according to James Comey. Comey says he was reluctant to say that in public, though, because if the investigation continued and took a different turn, he'd be obliged to correct the record. And the president certainly wouldn't like that being corrected.

There was one final call in April. Trump allegedly asked what Comey had done to get the word out Trump was not under investigation. I've been very loyal to you, Trump said, according to Comey, but that loyalty ended with his surprise firing in May.

SIEGEL: Well, is there anything in what we learned today that amounts to obstruction of justice?

JOHNSON: Well, that's being debated heavily by legal experts, and it's going to be a big question for the special counsel, Robert Mueller. You can draw a straight line from Comey's firing to the appointment of that independent prosecutor.

Now, in cases of obstruction, intent matters. Some lawyers are telling me this pattern, the timeline starting in January of the president stewing over this FBI investigation, asking for a loyalty oath from James Comey, allegedly asking the FBI and others to go light on Michael Flynn are certainly worthy of a close look by investigators at the FBI and the Justice Department. Of course Comey says he declined to take a loyalty pledge, and then he lost his job.

SIEGEL: Is there a more benign reading of what happened?

JOHNSON: Well, the White House and its Republican allies on Capitol Hill say the president had every ability and authority to fire Comey, period. They say there was more than enough reason to do it because of his mishandling of the Hillary Clinton matter, because Comey had to correct the record in Congress earlier this year and because Comey, in Donald Trump's words, is a grandstander and a showboat.

SIEGEL: Just one other point - Comey said he had nine exchanges with Donald Trump in four months. He said that he had two exchanges with President Obama during all those years, and one of them was just to say goodbye.

JOHNSON: Robert, that's because the FBI director is not supposed to be talking one-on-one with the president.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thanks.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.