US holds breath for high-stakes Comey hearing

When asked what message he had for ex-FBI chief James Comey before he testified on Thursday, President Trump said, 'I wish him luck', as he met with GOP leaders at the White House. VIDEO: REUTERS
Former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey is the star witness in a probe into alleged Russian meddling in the US presidential election last year.
Former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey is the star witness in a probe into alleged Russian meddling in the US presidential election last year.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US capital will grind to a halt on Thursday (June 8), glued to TV sets and computer screens as sacked FBI chief James Comey testifies about whether President Donald Trump asked him to halt a probe into one of his key aides' links to Russia.

Mr Trump, a ratings-obsessed former reality TV star, may not appreciate the worldwide attention paid to Mr Comey's public testimony, which is being touted as the Super Bowl of high political drama.

Mr Comey is the star witness in the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation of alleged Russian election meddling last year, with the possible collusion of the Trump campaign.

The allegations have drawn comparison to the 1970s Watergate scandal that brought down president Richard Nixon.

Mr Comey was given the go-ahead to deliver potentially explosive testimony after the White House announced it would not use its executive privilege to block his appearance, less than a month after he was controversially sacked by the President.

"Don't you like the suspense?" Senate Republican Marco Rubio, who is on the intelligence panel, asked a scrum of reporters.

"Rather than relying on articles and third-hand information, we're going to ask the director, and the American people are going to get to watch it."

At least two Washington bars were opening their doors before the hearing's 10am (10pm Singapore time) start to residents of the capital wanting to tune in live.

 

The Senate's top Democrat, Mr Chuck Schumer, acknowledged the intense interest in Mr Comey's testimony, which represents a moment of peril for the already embattled President.

"I just hope he tells everything he can," Mr Schumer said. "The American people, on a subject as serious as this, are entitled to the whole truth and nothing but."

A warm-up act of sorts comes on Wednesday, when the same committee hears from director of national intelligence Dan Coats, National Security Agency (NSA) head Mike Rogers, interim FBI director Andrew McCabe, and Deputy US Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein.

Adding to the drama, a top-secret NSA report leaked to online news outlet The Intercept shows that hackers from Russian military intelligence repeatedly tried to break into US voting systems before last year's presidential election.

Keen to crack down on leaks, the Trump administration quickly announced the arrest of an intelligence contractor on charges of violating the espionage act.

'A LOT OF SMOKE'

Mr Comey's testimony will be his first public remarks since he was summarily fired by Mr Trump on May 9.

The dismissal - a stunning move by any measure - came as the Federal Bureau of Investigation probes possible collusion between Mr Trump's campaign team and Russia, which US intelligence agencies concluded sought to tilt the election in the Republican's favour.

Mr Comey is said to have written detailed notes about three conversations he had with Mr Trump, which reportedly document the President's efforts to get the FBI to ease the investigation's focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Any confirmation that Mr Trump tried to press Mr Comey would open the President to damaging allegations that he attempted to obstruct an ongoing FBI investigation.

Several Democrats have warned that attempts to obstruct justice would propel the crisis into Watergate-like territory.

Mr Trump himself invoked Nixonian symbolism last month, when he warned via Twitter that Mr Comey "better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations".

Revelations that Nixon secretly taped visits in the White House, and refused to turn over the audio tapes under subpoena, led to his resignation in 1974.

Senator Mark Warner, the intelligence panel's top Democrat, said Mr Trump would have violated longstanding guidelines if he pressured Mr Comey to drop or slow-walk an investigation.

"It would be unthinkable if the President actually did what was reported," Mr Warner told CBS News Sunday.

"We have no smoking gun at this point, but there is a lot of smoke."

'BIG PROBLEM'

What Mr Comey will reveal, if anything, is the topic of intense speculation.

Republican committee member Senator Roy Blunt said he welcomed Mr Comey's testimony, but warned there could be "a big problem" if the ousted FBI boss is too restrictive in his responses.

"I expect us to ask him questions to be sure that we get all of the answers we need, not just the answers he wants to give," Mr Blunt said.

The White House had suggested that Mr Trump could invoke executive privilege to protect the confidentiality of presidential discussions, but some aides were wary that may appear like a cover-up.

Mr Trump's decision to fire Mr Comey led the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel, former FBI director Robert Mueller, to investigate allegations of collusion.

He reportedly has met with Mr Comey to discuss the probe, and Mr Comey reportedly sought his approval to testify.