News Analysis

Comey testimony: In protracted struggle, special counsel Robert Mueller is the man to watch

FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill.
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - Former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey produced a bruising political drama in Washington on Thursday (June 8) as he had his say in a testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But it produced no definitive outcome, and the key to the denouement may well remain in the hands of Mr Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed on May 17 to oversee the FBI's investigation into alleged links that key figures in President Donald Trump's camp may have had with Russia.

Even Mr Trump was uncharacteristically silent on Twitter, only saying briefly at a conference of conservative evangelicals in the afternoon: "We know how to fight better than anybody, and we never, ever give up - we are winners - and we are going to fight."

Thus, the events of the day, while not leaving Mr Trump unscathed, will do little to shake him. "If this is a five-act play, we are not even halfway through the first act," said Republican strategist and commentator Evan Siegfried.

"We are in for a protracted struggle," Dr Glenn Altschuler, professor of American Studies at Cornell University, told The Straits Times. "There may be a revelation a day, but it's a crisis in slow motion."

Mr Comey pleased - and also displeased - almost everyone. His testimony did not put the President, previous attorney-general Loretta Lynch, or even at one point the New York Times, which he said had got a story wrong, in a good light.

Mr Trump's attorney, Mr Marc Kasowitz, first released and then read out a statement at the National Press Club, and left without taking questions.

"Contrary to numerous false press accounts leading up to today's hearing, Mr Comey has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told the President privately: The President was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference" he said.

"He also admitted that there is no evidence that a single vote changed as a result of any Russian interference."

And he hit back at the former FBI chief for "leaking" information through a friend, in order to trigger the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller on May 17.

"Mr Comey admitted that he unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorised disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the President," Mr Kasowitz charged.

Each side took what they wanted from the testimony. Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich, who was among those on the intelligence committee who questioned Mr Comey, told reporters: "I think there's enough there that we should be very, very concerned about what went on."

"I think Bob Mueller will be able to answer that question (whether there is obstruction of justice) and I trust him to answer it accurately."

Republican Senator Marco Rubio told reporters: "I don't think anybody would leave this hearing and say to you that what the President said in the Oval Office on the 14th of February was appropriate. Whether it rises to criminality, I think there's significant doubts about what rises to that level."

Texas Senator Jon Cornyn, a Republican, said he did not believe there had been any obstruction of justice by President Trump.

"We're in the midst of an investigation now and we need to look at the memos that the FBI director dictated to be used to prepare his testimony and there's a lot of information we need but we haven't concluded our investigation," he told ABC News.

Mr Siegfried told The Straits Times on the phone: "To have the President of the United States being called a liar by the former director of the FBI, and that former director saying he believes he was fired because of his Russia investigations, is a public relations fiasco for the White House."

But from a legal perspective, nothing had changed, he said. "Nobody is moving any closer to or away from impeachment. Overall, nothing has changed, and no minds have changed."

"Comey said today that Mueller has the memos he wrote about his interactions with Trump. Nothing will happen without Mueller."

Despite that, some Republicans were feeling an underlying discomfort, which they would avoid expressing in public, he acknowledged.

"Certainly some Republicans will be feeling dismayed, because they don't know what shoe is about to drop," Dr Altschuler said. "But right now, they still feel they are tethered to President Trump."