The clash between an unorthodox American president and the FBI director whom he fired escalates to a new level Thursday as James B. Comey appears before Congress to testify under oath on whether President Trump tried to short-circuit his agency’s investigation into Russian meddling in the November presidential election.
Speculation is soaring over what Mr. Comey will say during Capitol Hill’s most anticipated congressional hearing in years, amid reports that he will challenge key parts of Mr. Trump’s accounts of their dealings but stop short of offering his own conclusion that the president attempted to obstruct justice.
With outside groups already rushing to try to control the narrative on Mr. Comey’s first public comments on his firing, Republican lawmakers will likely challenge his credibility while Democrats will push the former FBI director to detail Mr. Trump’s private conversations, including the president’s claims that Mr. Comey repeatedly told him he was not a target of the FBI probe into Russian hacking charges.
Multiple press reports Tuesday hinted that Mr. Comey will directly challenge Mr. Trump’s claim that he personally told the president on three occasions that he was not under investigation.
With Mr. Comey keeping his own counsel and owing little loyalty to the man who abruptly dismissed him last month, there is genuine suspense about how far he will go in characterizing the pressure he felt from Mr. Trump and his aides.
The former FBI chief will testify Thursday during an open session of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the morning and in a closed hearing after lunch. Many wonder if he will have counsel by his side or if the 30-year-plus veteran of law enforcement will stand before Congress alone.
Since the May 9 announcement, Washington has wrestled with the deeper meaning of Mr. Trump’s decision to dismiss the FBI director, only the second such firing in the agency’s 109-year history.
Mr. Trump inflamed public debate last month by setting a new standard for executive-level verbal abuse. He called Mr. Comey a “showboat” during a TV interview and followed up by reportedly telling Russian officials visiting the White House that the former FBI chief was a “nut job.”
The president’s sons have been scathing in denouncing the entire investigation into suspected Russian-Trump campaign collusion. Eric Trump told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday that the story was “the greatest hoax of all time.”
But the president surprised many this week when the White House announced that it would not invoke executive privilege to try to prevent Mr. Comey from testifying.
While saying nothing privately, Mr. Comey and his confidants have effectively counterpunched with a string of leaks to the press, including one to The New York Times of a private memo he reportedly wrote after an Oval Office meeting with Mr. Trump in February. An Associated Press report Tuesday said Mr. Comey had asked his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to shield the FBI chief from ever being alone in the same room as Mr. Trump.
The Comey-written memo reportedly accused Mr. Trump of attempting to persuade Mr. Comey to drop the FBI’s investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was dismissed after misleading Vice President Mike Pence and others about the extent of his contacts with Russian officials during the presidential transition.
“I hope you can let this go,” Mr. Trump allegedly told the FBI chief in the meeting.
There was further corroboration Tuesday of such a dynamic, as The Washington Post reported that Mr. Trump asked Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats in a private meeting after a broader gathering of agency heads in March to stop the Flynn probe — a request Mr. Coats later decided was inappropriate.
The dramatic leaks have at times overwhelmed Mr. Trump’s policy agenda and left lawmakers eager to hear directly from Mr. Comey. Some said they were tired of leaks and partisan innuendo and wanted direct testimony from the key source.
“The accounts of these memos [Mr. Comey] allegedly wrote would be at least triple hearsay, what Donald Trump said according to Jim Comey according to someone who saw the memo, according to The New York Times reporter who had it read to him,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican.
Speaking on “The Hugh Hewitt Show” on Tuesday, Mr. Cotton said he hadn’t personally seen any evidence of the memos in question. That could change on Thursday.
Perjury or obstruction
The hearing’s most serious legal drama will focus on accusations that Mr. Trump suggested Mr. Comey ease off the FBI’s investigation into Mr. Flynn.
Republicans are expected to hammer what appear to be inconsistencies between what Mr. Comey has said and what emerged in his leaked memos. One key mystery: Why didn’t Mr. Comey go public or resign if he felt the president was acting improperly on a sensitive national security investigation?
Mr. Comey told a Senate Judiciary oversight hearing last month that if he “were told to stop something for a political reason, that would be a very big deal. It’s not happened in my experience.”
Republican sources close to the investigation told The Washington Times that they were curious why Mr. Comey felt enough pressure from Mr. Trump to record it in a memo but not enough pressure to tell Congress last month while testifying.
Some Republicans might ask Mr. Comey if he thinks he perjured himself before Congress. They could also say the memos were fakes or unreliable. They also will likely question him closely about the leaks from the FBI to media outlets — and possibly other leaks from Obama-era officials.
Democrats have a different agenda. They say Mr. Trump’s reported request for leniency toward Mr. Flynn “points in the direction of obstruction of justice.”
Legal analysts are quick to note that obstruction of justice requires a high standard of evidence and purpose. In Mr. Comey’s case, they say, it would be hard to prove obstruction if Mr. Trump did nothing more than mention that the FBI should ease off Mr. Flynn. But Mr. Comey could inflict serious damage on the White House if he provides more details and context as to what Mr. Trump said about the overall Russia investigation.
Any evidence from the February White House meeting — including Mr. Trump’s expressions and body language — also could be relevant, legal analysts say.
Democrats could highlight a threatening tweet from Mr. Trump implying that he had tapes of his talk with Mr. Comey. If true, that could be a violation of federal law.
Ron Hosko, who retired in 2014 as assistant director of the FBI, said he doesn’t believe his former boss will be aided by an attorney during his testimony, nor will he need one. Mr. Comey has already obtained clearance from Robert Mueller, a former FBI chief who is now the special counsel looking into the Russian collusion charges, to testify about his dealings with Mr. Trump on handling the Russia probe.
“His attorney is going to be his own judgment, Bob Mueller’s judgment,” said Mr. Hosko, who now serves as president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund.
Though some say there is little chance that Thursday’s hearing will meet the high expectations for drama, there is no question that Mr. Comey’s appearance is dominating the conversation in official Washington.
“I haven’t seen excitement like this in years,” a Justice Department official told The Times. “It’s a heavyweight fight all about justice.”
The excitement and nervousness, some say, is everywhere. CNN is running a ticker counting down the time to the hearing’s start. The major broadcast networks will be joining their cable counterparts in covering live at least portions of Mr. Comey’s Capitol Hill testimony — an exceedingly rare phenomenon.
Some bars in Washington have announced that they will open early for the show and are also offering special “FBI” drinks for patrons watching the proceedings. Jumping into the fray, a pro-Trump super PAC is preparing ads accusing Mr. Comey of putting politics above the country. The ads will first run digitally, then on national TV the day of the hearing.
Even before Mr. Comey appears, the White House may face some uncomfortable moments on Capitol Hill.
On Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who made the call to appoint Mr. Mueller, will also appear before the Senate committee, alongside acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats. They will discuss the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act laws that are set to expire this year, but the Comey controversy is virtually certain to come up.
It will be Mr. Rosenstein’s first congressional appearance since he privately briefed lawmakers after Mr. Comey’s firing.
Most polls exploring the issue show roughly half of Americans surveyed believe Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey to slow down the FBI’s Russia investigation.
There is already speculation that Mr. Trump will be live-tweeting his own reaction to what Mr. Comey said, but for just a moment Tuesday, the president was taking the high road.
Asked by a reporter at a White House event if he had any message for Mr. Comey, Mr. Trump said only, “I wish him luck.”
• Andrea Noble contributed to this report.