The Russia Connection

How to Listen to Jim Comey's Testimony on Monday

By Benjamin Wittes
Saturday, March 18, 2017, 1:40 PM

Let me start by saying that I have absolutely no inside information about the testimony FBI Director Jim Comey is going to give Monday morning before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. I have not discussed what Comey might say with Comey himself or with anyone else who is in the know, and I'll thus be watching the hearing with the same level of uncertainty as everyone else will. If this were not the case, I almost certainly would not be writing this piece.

But free as I am from the shackles of any actual knowledge, let me offer readers the following user's guide to Comey's testimony, which can be summed up in one simple sentence: Comey's communicativeness with the committee—and through it with the public—will almost certainly be inversely proportional to the seriousness of the Russia investigation.

That is, if Comey says a lot, makes a lot of news on Russia matters, and cheers a lot of anti-Trump hearts by maximally embarassing the President for his outrageous comments on Obama's alleged wiretapping of Trump Tower, that will very likely be a sign that Comey has relatively little to protect in terms of investigative equities in the Russia matter and is thus free to vent. Conversely, a quiet, reserved Comey—one whose contrast with the relatively loquacious FBI director who talked at length about the Clinton email matters will infuriate a lot of liberals and frustrate those who want to know what's going on with Russia—may well spell trouble for the President.

To understand this perhaps paradoxical-sounding read, consider three possible scenarios.

In the first, the Russia investigation is either mostly complete, does not implicate the President in any significant way, or is a bust altogether. In this scenario, maybe General Flynn and Paul Manafort and Carter Page have problems, and maybe there's some ongoing counter-intelligence activity, but there's nothing big that Comey believes he has to protect save the sources and methods behind all such investigations. Comey is reportedly irate about Trump's wiretapping allegations, which don't merely defame the prior president but implicate the FBI in illegal activity. In this scenario, there's no particular reason for Comey not to tell his whole story and give vent to his anger. If this scenario is the reality, the template for Comey's testimomy will be his before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he spilled the beans on the 2004 hospital room confrontation over the Terrorist Surveillance Program.

When Comey has nothing to lose and he has a story to tell, here's what he sounds like:

SCHUMER: There have been media reports describing a dramatic visit by Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card to the hospital bed of John Ashcroft in March 2004, after you, as acting attorney general, decided not to authorize a classified program. First, can you confirm that a night-time hospital visit took place?

COMEY: Yes, I can.

SCHUMER: OK. Can you remember the date and the day?

COMEY: Yes, sir, very well. It was Wednesday, March the 10th, 2004.

SCHUMER: And how do you remember that date so well?

COMEY: This was a very memorable period in my life; probably the most difficult time in my entire professional life. And that night was probably the most difficult night of my professional life. So it's not something I'd forget.

SCHUMER: Were you present when Alberto Gonzales visited Attorney General Ashcroft's bedside?

COMEY: Yes.

SCHUMER: And am I correct that the conduct of Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card on that evening troubled you greatly?

COMEY: Yes.

SCHUMER: OK. Let me go back and take it from the top. You rushed to the hospital that evening. Why?

COMEY: I'm only hesitating because I need to explain why.

SCHUMER: Please. I'll give you all the time you need, sir.

COMEY: I've actually thought quite a bit over the last three years about how I would answer that question if it was ever asked, because I assumed that at some point I would have to testify about it. 

The rest of the exchange is the stuff of legend.

If you see Comey behaving like this, I think it's safe to make two assumptions: First, that he has decided that he doesn't mind being fired and that it's more important to tell the truth than to keep his job, and second and relatedly, that he has decided that his continued presence at FBI isn't necessary to preserve a crucially important investigation that is ongoing. This scenario may be the most embarrassing for Trump, but it almost surely means he is safest from seeing his presidency overwhelmed by Russia matters.

In the second scenario, there are still threads of the Russia investigation to protect but Comey does not necessarily expect them to lead anywhere. If this is the case, expect him to be tight-lipped about Russia but relatively communicative about the wiretapping allegations. In this scenario, I would expect him to answer committee questions about Trump's wiretapping allegations but not in a fashion that is especially provocative vis a vis the President. In other words, expect Comey to answer direct questions but in a just-the-facts kind of fashion that doesn't involve a lot of narrative storytelling. And expect him not to give information that would compromise the aspects of the investigation that may still be ongoing.

A sure sign that the Russia Connection is not that big a deal is if Comey talks about it. 

In the third scenario, Russia is a very big deal. Comey, in other words, has significant investigative equities to protect and he believes that he needs to be there in order to protect them—in other words, that he has a responsibility to not get himself fired because of his anger about the Trump tweets (or anything else) because he has to make sure the investigation can proceed unimpeded. In this situation, I would expect him to be minimally verbal. He may have to answer yes or no questions in certain instances, including about the truth of the wiretapping allegations, but he will refuse to answer a lot of questions. He will make as little news as humanly possible. He will be exceptionally spare with his opinions. He will make a point of not antagonizing the President. Lots of people will leave disappointed. 

If I were advising Trump, this is the scenario that would scare me most. We know, both from the hospital room testimony and from the Clinton email testimony, how Comey behaves when he feels at liberty to speak. We also know he's angry right now and would presumably love a chance to defend the integrity of his agency and his agents. If he passes up that opportunity, I will read that as a sign that he is biting his lip very hard because there's something more important at stake.