Washington: Fired FBI director James Comey will testify 8 June before the Senate Intelligence Committee about his dismissal by Donald Trump as the investigations into whether the president or his associates had improper contact with Russia are shifting toward a dramatic, public phase.
Comey will face intense questioning on what Trump said to him about the Russia investigation before the president fired him on 9 May. During an Oval Office meeting in February, Trump asked Comey to drop the FBI probe into former campaign adviser and national security adviser Michael Flynn, said a person who was given a copy of a memo Comey wrote about the conversation. Trump has denied trying to quash the probe.
The former FBI director’s testimony about the president who fired him is sure to be a pivotal event in Trump’s already tumultuous presidency. The committee said Thursday that Comey will appear in an open session in the morning followed later in the day by a closed meeting with the panel.
The Senate panel also plans to hear at some point from Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and one of his closest White House aides. It’s unclear whether that appearance would be in public or behind closed doors, but his testimony takes on new significance after revelations the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking at his discussions about setting up a back-channel communication with Russia after the election.
The Trump administration initially said Comey was fired over his handling of an investigation of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s emails, but Trump said later that week in an NBC interview that he was thinking of the probe into Russia’s meddling in the US election when he dismissed Comey. The president later tweeted that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"
Amid an uproar over the firing among Democrats in Congress, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein named Robert Mueller — Comey’s predecessor as FBI director — as a special counsel to oversee the investigation.
Trump has continued to dismiss the probes, labelling them a “Witch Hunt" in a tweet Wednesday and saying that Democrats are still sore about losing the election. “The big story is the ‘unmasking and surveillance’ of people that took place during the Obama Administration," Trump wrote on Twitter on Thursday morning.
The Senate Intelligence Committee and its House counterpart are still relatively early in the information-gathering stage. The House Intelligence panel approved subpoenas Wednesday to Flynn, whom Trump fired as his national security adviser, and Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer.
Both panels have sent far-reaching inquiries for Russia-related documents to a number of other Trump associates, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, former adviser Carter Page, longtime associate and Richard Nixon aficionado Roger Stone and others.
Contacts with Russian
Flynn, a retired US Army lieutenant general and former director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, was a top adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign. He resigned as Trump’s national security adviser just weeks into the administration amid claims that he misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the transition.
Flynn is one of a number of current and former associates of Trump who are at the center of investigations by the FBI and congressional committees into whether anyone close to Trump helped Russia interfere in the US election to hurt Clinton and help Trump, and whether any crimes were committed.
It’s not clear whether Comey will be limited in the subjects he’s able to discuss before the Senate panel because of the FBI investigation. Comey served as deputy US attorney general during President George W. Bush’s administration and was appointed FBI director by President Barack Obama in 2013.
The Senate committee has interviewed dozens of people -- mostly from within the intelligence community -- and continues to process numerous documents with raw intelligence at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Those documents formed the basis of the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia intentionally intervened in last year’s election to help elect Trump.
Panel chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina and Mark Warner of Virginia, its ranking Democrat, have said they are moving deliberately to gather as much information as they can before bringing in some of the bigger names for questioning.
But Comey’s 9 May firing has forced them to move more quickly. Senators are eager to hear from Comey about reports Trump asked him for personal loyalty and to let Flynn off the hook, among other issues.
“Right now what is important is getting Mr. Comey in front of the Intelligence Committee quickly," Ron Wyden, a Democrat on the panel, said last week. “We have an obligation to inform the American people about what was done to our democracy."
Also on Thursday, Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Al Franken of Minnesota said they asked the FBI for a briefing on their request that the agency investigate Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ failure to disclose during his confirmation hearing that he met with Russia’s US ambassador during the campaign. CNN reported Wednesday that congressional investigators are looking into a possible additional meeting between Sessions -- who campaigned for Trump -- and the ambassador.
Sessions “needs to resign" if it’s determined that he wasn’t truthful about the extent of his contacts with Russian officials during the campaign, Leahy and Franken said in a statement.
Poor approval ratings
The web of inquiries and near daily revelations about Russia -- described frequently by Senator John McCain as shoes dropping from a “centipede" -- have bogged down a president already dealing with poor approval ratings, a stalled agenda and constant talk of staff shakeups.
Flynn, who previously asserted a Fifth Amendment right not to turn over documents or testify, is preparing to offer some documents in his negotiations with the Senate panel, a person familiar with the matter said Tuesday.
Cohen has dismissed any talk of collusion with Russia. “To date, there has not been a single witness, document or piece of evidence linking me to this fake Russian conspiracy," he said in a statement Tuesday. “This is not surprising to me because there is none."
Trump has denied colluding with Russia.
Kushner agreed to cooperate with the Senate probe 27 March, when his meetings with Russians in December were publicly known but before the back-channel discussion surfaced. His lawyer, Jamie Gorelick, has said Kushner still plans to cooperate.
The White House has declined to say whether Trump himself had any role in the reported back-channel effort, which press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday was “not a confirmed action." On Wednesday, Spicer deferred future questions about the Russia probes to Trump’s personal lawyer.
While Trump would clearly like to get the issues behind him, these probes are likely to drag on for months. Bloomberg