US holds breath for high-stakes Comey hearing

June 7, 2017 (4 weeks ago) 4:49 am
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Former FBI Director James Comey will testify on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Russian meddling in the 2016 US election © AFP/File / Nicholas Kamm

, Washington, United States, Jun 7 – The US capital will grind to a halt Thursday, glued to computer and television screens as sacked FBI chief James Comey testifies about whether President Donald Trump pressured him to halt a probe into an advisor’s links to Russia.

Trump, a ratings-obsessed former reality television star, may not appreciate the worldwide attention paid to Comey’s public testimony, which is being touted as the Super Bowl of high political drama.

Comey is the star witness in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of alleged Russian election meddling last year, with the possible collusion of the Trump campaign. The allegations have drawn comparison to the 1970s Watergate scandal that brought down president Richard Nixon.

Comey was given the go-ahead to deliver potentially explosive testimony after the White House announced it would not use its executive privilege to block his appearance, less than a month after he was controversially sacked by the president.

The former Federal Bureau of Investigation director is expected to dispute Trump’s claim that Comey told him multiple times that he was not under investigation by the FBI, CNN reported sources familiar with Comey’s thinking as saying.

Trump himself weighed in Tuesday, even as the revelations could spell more bad news for his troubled administration.

“I wish him luck,” Trump said, when asked in a meeting with Republican leaders whether he had a message for the former FBI chief.

With Capitol Hill abuzz, at least two Washington bars were set to open their doors before the hearing’s 10:00 am (1400 GMT) start to Washingtonians wanting to tune in live.

“Don’t you like the suspense?” Senate Republican Marco Rubio, who is on the intelligence panel, asked a scrum of reporters.

“Rather than relying on articles and third-hand information, we’re going to ask the director, and the American people are going to get to watch it.”

The Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, offered a more somber assessment of Comey’s testimony, which marks a moment of peril for the embattled president.

“I just hope he tells everything he can,” Schumer said. “The American people, on a subject as serious as this, are entitled to the whole truth and nothing but.”

A warm-up act of sorts comes Wednesday, when the same committee hears from Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, National Security Agency (NSA) head Mike Rogers, interim FBI director Andrew McCabe, and Deputy US Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Adding to the drama, a top-secret NSA report leaked to online news outlet The Intercept shows that hackers from Russian military intelligence repeatedly tried to break into US voting systems before last year’s presidential election.

Keen to crack down on leaks, the Trump administration quickly announced the arrest of a 25-year-old intelligence contractor on charges of violating the espionage act.

– ‘A lot of smoke’ –

Comey’s testimony will be his first public remarks since Trump summarily fired him on May 9.

The dismissal — a stunning move by any measure — came as the FBI is probing possible collusion between his campaign team and Russia, which US intelligence agencies concluded sought to tilt the election in the Republican’s favor.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Presient Trumps’ son-in-law and sneior adviser Jared Kushner in February, before Flynn was forced out over his secret talks with the Russian embassy (FILES) This file photo taken on February 13, 2017 shows then National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (L) and Jared Kushner, senior White House adviser, before a joint press conference between Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and US President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. The activities of President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior aide Jared Kushner have come under FBI scrutiny as part of the probe of Russian interference in last year’s presidential election, US media reported May 25, 2017. Although it is unclear whether Kushner is a main focus of the probe, he is under investigation for the “extent and nature” of his interaction with Russian officials, the Washington Post reported, citing people familiar with the matter. © AFP/File / MANDEL NGAN

Comey is said to have written detailed notes about three conversations he had with Trump, which reportedly document the president’s efforts to get the FBI to ease the investigation’s focus on former national security advisor Michael Flynn.

Any confirmation that Trump tried to press Comey would open the president to damaging allegations that he attempted to obstruct an ongoing FBI investigation — which several Democrats have warned would propel the crisis into Watergate-like territory.

Trump himself invoked Nixonian symbolism last month, when he warned via Twitter that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations.”

Revelations that Nixon secretly taped visits in the White House, and refused to turn over the audio tapes under subpoena, led to his resignation in 1974.

Senator Mark Warner, the intelligence panel’s top Democrat, said Trump would have violated longstanding guidelines if he pressured Comey to drop or slow-walk an investigation.

“It would be unthinkable if the president actually did what was reported,” Warner told CBS News Sunday.

“We have no smoking gun at this point, but there is a lot of smoke.”

– ‘Big problem’ –

What Comey will reveal, if anything, is the topic of intense speculation.

Republican committee member Senator Roy Blunt said he welcomed Comey’s testimony, but warned there could be “a big problem” if the ousted FBI boss is too restrictive in his responses.

Senator Richard Burr (L) (R-NC), Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and ranking member of the committee Sen. Mark Warner (R) (D-VA) are to oversee Thursday’s potentially explosive hearings into Russia’s allaged campaign hacking © GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File / WIN MCNAMEE

“I expect us to ask him questions to be sure that we get all of the answers we need, not just the answers he wants to give,” he said.

The White House had suggested Trump could invoke executive privilege to protect the confidentiality of presidential discussions, but some aides were wary that may appear like a cover-up.

Trump’s decision to fire Comey led the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel, ex-FBI director Robert Mueller, to investigate allegations of collusion.

He reportedly has met with Comey to discuss the probe, and Comey reportedly sought his approval to testify.

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