The anticipation of former FBI director James Comey’s public appearance Thursday before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is approaching levels of past bombshell moments of congressional testimony — John Dean in 1973, Oliver North in 1987, Anita Hill in 1991.
All the major broadcast and cable news networks are covering the testimony live, some with limited or no ads, a sign of the elevated importance being given to the event and the chance that it may be one for the history books. Some believe that Comey’s testimony about his conversations with President Trump could be the basis for obstruction of justice allegations.
But there’s also plenty of reason to be cautious about what Comey says or does not say, and of reading too much into a moment that is part of a larger, unfolding story in which so many questions remain unanswered.
“Substantively, we are nowhere near Watergate,” said John Dickerson, anchor of “Face the Nation” and CBS News’ chief Washington correspondent. “But as a matter of modern American, high-profile congressional testimony, this is up there with some of the big well-watched moments.”
CNN commentator Carl Bernstein, who with fellow reporter Bob Woodward broke the Watergate story in The Washington Post, has said on the news program that he believes the Trump investigation is a “potentially more dangerous situation than Watergate.”
Two major storylines are at work: The investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and whether there was any kind of collusion by members of the Trump campaign; and the nature and circumstances of Comey’s interaction with Trump, and whether that amounted to an effort to pressure the FBI director to curtail an investigation into Michael Flynn before Comey was eventually fired.
The expectation seems to be that, given that the Russia investigation is now in the hands of special counsel Robert Mueller, Comey is more likely to limit most of his comments to the interactions he had with the president. Comey may merely confirm reporting that has already been out there, such as a New York Times report in May that Comey kept memos of his meetings with the president. According to the Times, at one meeting on Feb. 14, Trump addressed the investigation of Michael Flynn and said to his FBI director, “I hope you can let this go.” The Times sourced a Comey associate who had the memo and read it to the reporter.
Among other things, Dickerson said he is looking to “what specific detail [Comey] asserts the president to have said on February 14, what happened at the dinner they had together, and did he give assurances to [Trump] that he was not under investigation?”
Another question is whether Comey will describe how he viewed Trump’s motives. ABC News reported on Tuesday that Comey will not accuse Trump of obstructing justice, but he will dispute Trump’s contention that Comey told him three times that he was not under investigation.
Tim Naftali, clinical associate professor of history and public service at New York University, said that Trump and his tweets that suggest that there may be recordings of his conversations with Comey have made the former FBI director’s testimony “seem even more important.”
“Comey will give us, as outsiders, the first direct evidence of the meetings and we will hear if his friends correctly characterized them,” Naftali said.
Naftali, the former director of the Richard Nixon Library and Museum, warned that it is presumptuous to draw immediate parallels to Watergate.
“Nixon’s case was about obstruction of justice. That is one of the similarities. But there are other ways it is not,” he said.
John Dean, Nixon’s former White House counsel, implicated the president in the unfolding Watergate scandal when he testified in June, 1973. North, in military uniform, testified in 1987 about the scheme to sell arms to Iran and divert the profits to rebels in Nicaragua. Both were unexpected, key moments in those investigations.
“What made these instances so sought after, what made these television spectacles, were these were people who could tell things about the president that for various reasons the president wasn’t telling,” Naftali said.
Comey is testifying under different circumstances, he added, and at a time when it is unclear which direction the Russia investigation is headed.
“In the end, regardless if Comey says anything that seems to imply an effort by the president to end the investigation, it is likely that the president will deny Mr. Comey’s recollection,” Naftali said. “Comey’s testimony is a very important next chapter in the Russia investigation, but it is unlikely to answer a lot of questions about it. It is likely to raise more.”
Tom Hollinan, professor at the USC School for Communication and Journalism, said that “Comey’s own personality and style and character are going to be on display, and will be somewhat subjected to tests in his testimony.”
“Comey is kind of a unique figure because he was loathed by Democrats after the Hillary Clinton episode,” Hollinan said. “Now people are going to try to construct an identity of who Comey is as a character.”
Congressional testimony also can have a far different influence on public opinion than what was expected. North was a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, but was an “instant hit” in his testimony, viewed by some as a “great American patriot,” in the words of one of the lawyers on the investigating committee.
The moment could have a significant impact on public perception — whether it be interest in the investigation, the public’s view of Comey or their view of Trump.
“It re-sets. It brings everything into the actual moment of testimony,” Dickerson said. “The present can really determine and run the narrative, and that has always been true in the television media age and even more so in the social media age.
He added that “the medium, and now social media, creates an instantaneous and present history that can sometimes make it hard to keep context in mind.” The pressure, then will be to offer instant analysis, “but there is really going to be a need to keep things in context so you are not over-influenced by the drama of the moment.”
Broadcast TV coverage, James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
10 a.m. ET, 7 a.m. PT, Thursday
The cable news networks will be covering James Comey’s testimony live before a Senate committee. That is to be expected. What is unusual is that the broadcast networks are also going live.
ABC: George Stephanopoulos anchors, joined by Jon Karl, chief Washington correspondent; Pierre Thomas, senior justice correspondent; Brian Ross, chief investigative correspondent; Mary Bruce, congressional correspondent; Dan Abrams, chief legal analyst. David Muir will anchor “World News Tonight” from Washington. It also will be streamed on ABCNews.com.
CBS: Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell anchor, and will be joined by “Face the Nation” anchor and chief Washington correspondent John Dickerson and chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford. Margaret Brennan will report from the White House, Nancy Cordes from inside the hearing on Capitol Hill and Jeff Pegues from Washington. Chip Reid will also be on Capitol Hill. The event also will be streamed on CBSNews.com.
NBC: Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie and Chuck Todd will co-anchor from Washington, with reports on NBC and MSNBC from Andrea Mitchell, Hallie Jackson, Kristen Welker, Peter Alexander, Pete Williams, Kasie Hunt, Kelly O’Donnell, Chris Jansing, Ari Melber and Garrett Haake. Richard Engel will report from Moscow. Coverage also will be streamed on NBCNews.com.
Fox: Shepard Smith will anchor, Bill Hemmer and Shannon Bream anchor for Fox News Channel.
Clarification: A previous version of this story referred to the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace. It is the Richard Nixon Library and Museum.