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Former FBI director James Comey is scheduled to testify publicly before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday in one of the most highly-anticipated hearings in Washington in recent memory. Senators are expected to ask Comey if President Donald Trump tried to block the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s possible ties to his 2016 campaign. Mr. Trump fired Comey last month. Here are things we’ll be watching at the hearing.
PBS NewsHour will stream Comey’s hearing live starting at 10 a.m. EST Thursday. Watch in the player above. NewsHour will also run a live on-air special for the duration of his testimony.
Comey will surely be asked about the memo he wrote after a meeting with Trump on Feb. 14. In the memo, Comey wrote that the president asked him to drop the FBI’s investigation into ties between Russia and Michael Flynn, who resigned as national security adviser the previous day over questions about his own ties to Russian officials.
Trump has denied making the request. But the memo is one of several detailed reports Comey reportedly wrote after speaking with Trump in order to document the conversations. The contrasting accounts of the meeting have pitted the president’s word against that of a former top law enforcement official.
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Comey’s description of the February meeting with Trump will be one of the most riveting, and important, moments of the hearing. If Comey confirms his story under oath, it would be a sharp rebuke of Trump and top White House officials, who have also denied that the president tried to have the Flynn case dropped.
Moreover, if Comey doubles down on his version of events, he would go on record with the claim that Trump may have acted illegally. Many legal experts believe that Trump’s request to Comey qualifies as an attempt to obstruct justice under federal law. It will be interesting to see how far Comey goes at the hearing: Will he essentially accuse Trump of obstruction of justice, or will he stop short of leveling that charge?
Once the public hearing is over, Comey is slated to testify at a private afternoon closed session with the Senate Intelligence Committee. The schedule raises a key question: How much will Comey feel comfortable revealing in public, and how much will he save for the hearing behind closed doors?
Several factors will weigh into Comey’s approach. The scope of the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and its possible ties to Trump’s campaign — which is now being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller — includes the circumstances surrounding Comey’s firing. That means Comey will be asked to comment on an open, ongoing FBI probe that could potentially result in criminal charges down the line.
Additionally, some of the information that senators may wish to ask might be classified. Comey can speak more freely now than if he were still the director of the FBI. But it remains unclear exactly how much and what kind of information Comey can share in public as a private citizen who until very recently had access to some of the government’s top secrets. The opening round of questions at the public hearing will be telling, as Comey could signal early on how much he plans on opening up.
Up until now, the Senate investigations into Russia have been smooth, bipartisan affairs. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has worked closely with the panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. But the Comey hearing is the most high-profile moment yet in the investigations. Republicans will be forced, on live national television, to give some indication of the direction of their investigation.
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This puts Republicans on the panel in somewhat of a bind. The Russia-Trump controversy has been a major distraction for Republicans in Congress, who are eager to move forward with their legislative agenda. But appearing impatient at the Comey hearing would risk signaling a lack of concern about the possibility that Russia interfered with the election and colluded with Trump’s campaign to help him win. On the other hand, if Republicans go too far in the opposite direction — by appearing highly critical of the president — they risk angering Trump, who will certainly be following the hearing closely and could lash out on social media.
That leaves a third, middle-of-the-road option: calling for all the facts and refusing to rush to any conclusions. Most Republicans have fallen back on that strategy so far. That will likely continue at the hearing on Thursday.
Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee will face a similar dilemma. Since Trump took office, party leaders have faced tremendous pressure to oppose the administration’s every move. That has extended to the investigations over the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia, with some lawmakers on the left calling for impeachment proceedings against the president.
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But sounding the alarm so early has political downsides. The investigations are still open, and the special counsel probe is only just getting underway. If Democrats question Comey too aggressively, they risk playing into Trump’s claims that the entire affair is a political “witch hunt.” For that reason, Democrats have tried so far to strike a cautious tone. If one or more decide to throw caution aside on Thursday, it would significantly ramp up the drama.
The president is known to watch a lot of cable news— and then tweet out his reactions to the coverage, occasionally in real time. It’s unclear if Trump will watch Thursday’s hearing live. If he does, his running commentary could become an important side story. Even if he doesn’t, and is briefed on the hearing afterwards, he could still take to Twitter to share his thoughts.
WATCH LIVE: James Comey to testify in Senate hearing on Russia
Daniel Bush is PBS NewsHour's Senior Political Reporter.
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