How the James Comey hearing is Washington's Super Bowl
Posted June 6, 2017 8:17 a.m. EDT
Washington politics has often been described as sports for people who weren't all that good at sports. If that's true, then Thursday's congressional testimony by fired FBI Director James Comey is this town's Super Bowl.
For weeks -- really since Comey was fired on May 9 -- Washington has been waiting for the day when he tells his side of the story of just what transpired between him and President Donald Trump between January and May.
Those expectations have only increased as Trump has taken his distaste for Comey public -- calling him a "showboat" in an interview with NBC's Lester Holt and, reportedly, a "nut job" in an Oval Office meeting with Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
And, on Monday, the excitement and interest reached a boiling point when, within a few hours of each other, three things happened:
1. Deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made clear the White House would not invoke executive privilege in an attempt to keep Comey from testifying. (Doing so would have been a political disaster for the White House and had dicey legal chances.)
2. Intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, who will be heading Thursday's hearing, said that there would be no limits on what Comey could say. "As far as I'm concerned, anything that would be off-limits would have to be expressed by the former director," Burr told CNN.
3. The big three broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- announced they would be carrying the Comey hearing live, an unheard-of move for something so traditionally mundane as a congressional hearing.
Not only will Comey testify then but he'll have no shackles -- at least from senators -- on what he can say. And his words will be heard by, basically, anyone who turns on a TV for any part of the day on Thursday.
The story Comey presumably has to tell is a humdinger, based on all of the amazing reporting in and around this White House and Comey's relationship with Trump.
Did Comey actually tell Trump, on three separate occasions, that he was not under investigation in relation to the Russia probe? If so, why, given that it was -- and is -- a clear breach of protocol? If not, then what is Trump talking about?
Did Comey have concerns, which he documented at the time, with how Trump understood (or misunderstood) the proper relationship between a president and an FBI director? If so, are there examples of incidents that worried him?
Did Trump directly ask Comey to end or curtail the Russia investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn? If so, why didn't Comey report it to someone?
There's lots and lots of other questions that Comey can answer in Thursday's hearing. And his answers are the sort of stuff that could have explosive consequences for this president and this White House -- particularly given how adamant Trump has been that all of the reporting on his conversations with Comey is totally wrong.
If Comey comes anywhere close to affirming the reporting on the nature and specifics of his relationship with Trump, it will raise deep questions about not only whether Trump understands the rules governing his job but also whether he feels any need to tell the truth. If Comey comes out and says, "Yes, in a one-on-one meeting, Donald Trump asked me to drop the Russia investigation," the ball is very much in Trump's court to respond. And, in a battle of he said-he said between Comey and Trump, the bulk of the public is likely to side with the deposed FBI director.
The testimony Comey is expected to give on Thursday will require a coordinated and aggressive White House response. But, as Axios' Mike Allen reports Tuesday morning, there appears to be no agreed- upon plan on how, exactly, to make that happen.
"I'm told that the inside-outside machinery, as envisioned by aides who frantically planned it while Trump finished his overseas trip, may never exist," Allen writes.
That vacuum -- plus everything we know about Trump -- leaves open the possibility that the White House's official response will come in the form of a series of angry (and ill-thought out) tweets from @realdonaldTrump. And, as has been demonstrated over the last 72 hours with Trump's London attack tweets and his tweetstorm on the so-called "travel ban," it's rarely politically beneficial to him or his White House when he gets alone with his phone.
High stakes. Major revelations. Wall-to-wall TV coverage. And a president ready to blow. Add it all up and Thursday is shaping up to be the single biggest day in Washington in decades.