Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony today in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee could be one of the most important days in Donald Trump’s presidency. It could set the stage for a whole series of events that could bring Trump even lower than he is now. It could even, perhaps, culminate in his impeachment.
That’s not because Comey necessarily has direct proof of a crime — though he might, if the crime in question is obstruction of justice. It’s because he will offer the most public and specific evidence we’ve gotten so far of Trump’s misconduct around the Russia scandal.
Of course, Comey’s testimony could also be a dud. It might not be able to live up to the hype. It might be just a bunch of dull questions and dull answers, full of digressions on FBI procedures and "I’d rather not discuss a pending investigation" evasions. But it’s not looking that way.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Intelligence Committee released the prepared testimony Comey was set to offer, and it was colorful, to say the least. While there aren’t necessarily any surprises — much of what’s there has been reported in news stories citing Comey associates with whom he has spoken about his interactions with Trump — seeing it laid out from the source is still remarkable. Let’s begin with this dramatic scene from a dinner the two men shared a week after Trump took office:
A few moments later, the president said, "I need loyalty, I expect loyalty." I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. [Comey]
Who knows, it may have been in that very moment, their eyes locked in a wordless challenge, that Comey doomed himself to be fired. In any case, Trump apparently held out some hope that Comey would be not an independent official but Trump’s man to order about as he saw fit. Here’s a description of another conversation a couple of weeks later, when after a meeting of intelligence officials Trump dismissed everyone except Comey:
The president then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, "He is a good guy and has been through a lot." He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the vice president. He then said, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go." [Comey]
And just to complete the impression that Comey was communicating either with the president of the United States or with Paulie Walnuts, there’s this bit of a phone conversation the two had:
He said he would do that and added, "Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know." I did not reply or ask him what he meant by "that thing." [Comey]
You know, that thing with that guy, that we talked about that time.
Having had a day to mull over these scenes, the members of the committee (the Democrats, at least) will no doubt have many interesting questions to ask Comey. Combine Comey’s testimony with reports that the president asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo to exert pressure on the FBI to kill the investigation into Flynn, and you have a picture of a president who seems to be working very hard to do the very same thing for which Richard Nixon was about to be impeached when he resigned. Don’t forget that it was only when Nixon was caught on tape agreeing to a plan in which the CIA would pressure the FBI to quash the investigation into the scandal that Republicans abandoned him en masse and impeachment began moving through the House.
Whether Trump ever considers that parallel is something we can’t know. What we do know is that despite the advice of any sane person around him, he plans on watching the Comey hearing and tweeting about it as it proceeds, which should produce a series of thoughtful, carefully considered additions to the debate.
Trump’s allies are also helping out: A pro-Trump PAC will be airing an attack ad against Comey ("James Comey: just another DC insider only in it for himself"), as though he were an opposing candidate who needed to be taken down.
One thing we know about Comey, though: He came prepared. He documented every conversation he had with Trump, and he’s an expert at going before the cameras and acting the upright G-man who refuses to abide any kind of impropriety. From Trump’s perspective it will no doubt look like self-righteous preening. But it’s a whole lot of trouble for a president who keeps making more for himself.