This week, Washington is chattering endlessly about one man. And for once, it isn’t Donald Trump.
Former FBI director James Comey, who was unceremoniously fired by Trump and found out on television like everybody else, is the talk of the town. His appearance in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday morning is being billed as a 21st-century reincarnation of the famous John Dean Watergate hearings in 1973. The major networks will be broadcasting Comey’s testimony on their airwaves, after which every one of the former FBI chief’s sentences will be analyzed until the pundits are blue in the face.
We obviously can’t be sure what Comey will reveal, if he’s allowed to reveal anything at all. But we already know quite a lot from his perspective, and none of it is good for the Trump administration.
Just to recap, there’s President Trump’s demand that Comey sign a verbal loyalty pledge (Comey refused). There’s Trump’s attempt to get the former FBI director to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, who resigned in disgrace after only three weeks. There’s the terrible personal chemistry between the president and the career law-enforcement official, reportedly memorialized in memos that Comey himself made after every interaction with Trump. And of course there’s an abiding sense all around Washington that Comey was forced to choose between two terrible alternatives: succumb to Trump’s wishes and lay off the Russia inquiry, or continue doing his job and risk being dismissed.
What we do know is that the Trump administration’s war room is on full alert. The White House has been blindsided time and again since the Russia story broke, and the lack of organization within the communications shop – plus Trump’s own comments – haven’t made the damage control any easier. The so-called war room is still being set up, but there are some hints as to the public relations strategy the administration will use to push back against Comey’s testimony. In a phrase, they aren’t going to go soft on the man.
Though Comey is often looked upon as an upstanding citizen who puts country above politics, the last year has provided the White House with ammunition to go after his credibility. Pointing to Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation — as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein did in his letter to President Trump — might seem silly given that Trump himself applauded Comey for re-opening the case last October, but White House officials and surrogates could leverage that episode to illustrate Comey’s own acumen for the job.
We’ve learned quite a lot since Comey was fired about a month ago. We know, for instance, that he got his hands on a document during the Clinton email probe that proved to be a fake, but he was so convinced it would embarrass the FBI and the Justice Department if it leaked that he went public with his findings. We know Comey was concerned that he was being asked to obstruct justice, but never notified the congressional oversight committees. Instead, he kept his notes to himself and deployed them only as insurance to cover for himself; it isn’t a coincidence that the contents of those memos are finding their way into news accounts only after Comey was booted from the FBI.
Administration spokesman on the inside and surrogates on the outside will use all of that to support their preferred narrative: Comey is a snake who is out to get the president.
As for the court of public opinion, who knows if any of this will stick? Trump’s approval ratings make President George W. Bush’s second-term numbers look impressive. But at least the White House has something to fight back with. Whether that will ultimately save the White House from Comey’s revenge on Thursday remains to be seen.