On Thursday morning, James Comey, the former director of the FBI, will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Every major television network will cover the hearings live, and at least one bar in D.C. is opening at 9:30 a.m. to show Comey's testimony (complete with drink specials).
This isn't the first time Comey has given evidence before a congressional committee; he appeared before the same one he'll speak to on Thursday barely a month ago. Then, he spoke about why he informed Congress back in October that the FBI would reopen its inquiry into Hillary Clinton's email server. But that was before he got fired — and before President Trump's administration came up with a justification for his firing that Trump himself would light on fire on national television. Perhaps most importantly, that first testimony was also before the publication of a New York Times article stating that people close to the former FBI director were aware of a memo detailing a February meeting between Trump and Comey in which the president asked Comey to stop investigating former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
Though only in that position for 24 days, Flynn, a retired U.S. Army general and Mr. "Lock Her Up" himself, is at the heart of the investigation into the Trump campaign's connections with Russia, and will be central to Comey's testimony on Thursday.
This hearing will essentially come down to four big questions. First, does the memo that Comey wrote after meeting with Trump exist? Though this has been confirmed by multiple media outlets (including Fox News), the memo itself has never been seen by anyone other than Comey and his associates, including the New York Times reporter who originally wrote about it. Second, if the memo does exist, does it imply that Comey found evidence of coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia before he was dismissed by the Trump administration? If so, such coordination would be illegal. The third, and perhaps most crucial, question is: Did Trump ask Comey to take it easy on Flynn and pledge his loyalty to the president?
To better understand why Comey was in this position in the first place, a bit of background on the man at the heart of the investigation. Before Flynn single-handedly managed to put the entire Trump administration in peril, he was appointed by President Obama to lead the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2012. Flynn left the agency in 2014, to the relief of his colleagues, who were concerned at his very loose relationship with reality (they called his bizarre statements, like that Iran had killed more Americans than al-Qaeda since 2000, "Flynn facts").
The former general then began a new career as a fervent opponent of President Obama and Hillary Clinton, and a Twitter conspiracy theorist. In between writing books arguing that Islam isn't a real religion, Flynn tweeted that Clinton was being investigated by New York's police department for sex crimes with children and that it was "rational" to be afraid of Muslims. He also found time to accept half a million dollars from the Turkish government to represent their interests without registering as a foreign lobbyist, as is required by law.
But most consequential is Flynn's relationship with the Russian government. In 2015, Flynn received more than $60,000 from Russian companies, including more than $45,000 from the government-backed news outlet RT for attending a gala (during which he was seated right by Vladimir Putin). But Flynn was fired from his post on February 13 allegedly because he lied to Vice-President Mike Pence about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn told Pence that he didn't discuss U.S. sanctions against the Russian government with Kislyak when they spoke on the phone several times on December 29, but counterintelligence showed that he did. But that isn't all: Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates told a Senate committee in May that the White House knew about Flynn's conversations more than two weeks before Flynn was fired, saying that she and others were worried that Flynn could have been at risk of being blackmailed by the Russian government.
For some reason, Trump has maintained an intense loyalty to Flynn even after firing him — and that's what brings us back to Comey. Trump knew that Flynn was under federal investigation for his work on behalf of the Turkish government yet hired him as national security advisor anyway. Even after firing him, Trump told some administration officials that he wished he hadn't, saying that Flynn was a "good man." That's allegedly what he told Comey in February before saying "I hope you can let this go," which some have interpreted as referring to the FBI's investigation into Flynn's ties with foreign governments. If that's truly what Trump was implying, that would mean that the president of the United States tried to pressure the director of the FBI (whom he later fired) into ending an investigation into the relationship of one of his closest associates with a foreign government believed to have attempted (and possibly succeeded at) influencing our election.
And that brings us to the fourth and final question at the heart of this investigation: Did Comey get fired for refusing to overlook Flynn’s transgressions and pledge loyalty to the president? If so, that would be obstruction of justice — one of the charges used against Richard Nixon before he resigned from office and one of the official reasons given for the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
Thursday's hearing won't be the end of the investigation into Michael Flynn and the Trump campaign's potential ties with foreign governments (Flynn himself has notably invoked the Fifth Amendment — the right to avoid self-incrimination — and won't testify before the Senate). But as they say, it's not the crime that'll get you in trouble. It's the cover-up. Comey certainly won't end the questions about what Trump's associates, and Trump himself, did or didn't know about potential Russian disinformation campaigns aimed at the 2016 presidential election, either. But his testimony on Capitol Hill might reveal that Trump's efforts to stop an investigation were more damaging to his administration than the investigation itself could have ever been.