WASHINGTON • Former Federal Bureau of Investigation chief James Comey will likely hold back from accusing US President Donald Trump of trying to interfere with a probe into links between Mr Trump's election campaign team and Russian officials when he testifies in Congress today, legal sources said.
Mr Comey's highly anticipated appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee today could be a turning point in a controversy that has rocked the Trump administration. Even though he will stop short of declaring his own views, Mr Comey is expected to put the President's conduct on public display.
He will spell out several key conversations the two men had in the weeks before Mr Trump dismissed him - while Mr Comey was heading up a probe into Russia's role in last year's US presidential election.
Democratic senators will minutely parse his answers to make the case that Mr Trump obstructed justice. And Republicans, White House aides and maybe an agitated President with an itchy Twitter finger will do the same in an effort to minimise the damage.
Two legal experts said Mr Comey would seek to avoid compromising a new inquiry led by special counsel Robert Mueller or separate congressional investigations.
Another source, who asked not to be named, said Mr Comey does not see it as his role to charge the President or anyone else with obstruction of justice or any other crime.
Mr Trump has repeatedly derided the federal probes into Russia's role in the 2016 election, including possible connections to his associates and relatives as "fake news", a "witch hunt" and a "fabrication" by Democrats.
Mr Comey led those probes, refused to drop them when confronted by the President and was subsequently fired.
After the White House gave shifting explanations for the dismissal, Mr Trump said he fired Mr Comey for incompetence, adding that he thought the then FBI chief was a "showboat" and a "grandstander".
A critical issue for senators will be what Mr Trump said to Mr Comey about a probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn's activities. Mr Flynn was fired just weeks into Mr Trump's presidency for misleading Vice-President Mike Pence about conversations with Russia's ambassador to the US.
A memo written by Mr Comey after Mr Flynn's dismissal said the President asked him to ease up on the probe. That alone could be fodder for obstruction of justice charges, some legal experts said.
Senators will also ask about Mr Trump's claim that Mr Comey had assured him, on three separate occasions, that he was not the subject of any probe.
During a White House photo opportunity with congressional leaders on Tuesday, Mr Trump was asked by a reporter if he had any message for Mr Comey before his testimony. "I wish him luck," the President said.
Meanwhile, the chiefs of two other US intelligence agencies yesterday said they have never felt pressured by Mr Trump's administration to stonewall the probe into alleged Russian meddling in the US election, contradicting reports.
"I have never felt pressured to intervene in the Russia investigation in any way," director of national intelligence Dan Coats told members of the Senate intelligence committee when asked about such reports.
Separately, National Security Agency director Mike Rogers said: "I am not going to discuss the specifics of interactions I may or may have not had with the President." He also said he has never felt pressured to do anything unethical.
And former top US intelligence official James Clapper said yesterday that Watergate pales in comparison to the scandals engulfing Mr Trump and the Russia connection.
"Now as a private citizen, I am very concerned about the assault on our institutions coming from both an external source - read Russia - and an internal source, the President himself," he said.
Asked at the National Press Club in Canberra what he thought the critical differences were between Watergate, which brought down then President Richard Nixon, and Mr Trump's troubles, Mr Clapper replied: "Watergate pales really in my view compared to what we're confronting now."
"It is absolutely crucial for the United States, and for that matter for the world, for this presidency, for the Republicans, for the Democrats and for our nation at large, that we get to the bottom of this," added Mr Clapper, who was director of national intelligence under former president Barack Obama.
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