The Slatest

What Is James Comey Going to Tell the Senate? The Russia Obstruction Scandal, Explained.

Donald Trump, James Comey, Vladimir Putin.
Donald Trump, James Comey, Vladimir Putin.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images.

Former FBI Director James Comey testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday. It’s the most anticipated congressional hearing since the time James Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee in March. Since then, Comey has been fired, Trump leaked classified information to the Russians, scores of tick-tocks have been published, and time itself has seemed to dilate as more and more mega-news breaks every day. What are we all waiting to hear from Comey? Where does his testimony fit into the larger Russia scandal (and what exactly is that scandal about, again)? Here’s a primer on the ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia, the various advisers and hangers-on whose names swirl around it, and just what it is Trump is supposed to have done that Comey—who’s already released the opening statement he plans to give—will be talking about.

Why are we here?

At the March 20 House committee hearing, Comey confirmed the existence of an FBI investigation into contacts between Russian operatives and “individuals associated with the Trump campaign.” On May 9, Trump fired Comey. After a brief period of administrationwide dissembling based on the premise that Comey had been dismissed on the recommendation of a memo by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who wrote that Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation had damaged the FBI’s credibility, Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt that he’d decided to fire his FBI director before he received Rosenstein’s memo. He also said that he made the decision while ruminating that “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.”

Is it a “made-up story”?

It depends on how you define “story.” Do we know that Vladimir Putin and Trump worked together to manipulate the presidential election in Trump’s favor and that Trump is now doing Putin’s bidding? No. But, crucially, no one is saying that this happened. Do we know that Russia interfered in our election, and that there are several suspicious connections between people in Trump’s camp and people in Putin’s camp? Yes. We know that. That’s not a made-up story.

Remind me: What are the several suspicious connections?

  • During the aughts, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was paid millions of dollars via a secret slush fund for consulting services rendered to Putin-allied Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort was also reportedly paid millions of dollars in the same period by Putin-allied Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska for work that, to quote a strategy memo written by Manafort and obtained by the Associated Press, was intended to “benefit the Putin Government.”
  • Michael Flynn, who resigned from his gig as Trump’s national security adviser after just weeks on the job, was paid at least $50,000 in recent years by Russian entities including the propaganda network RT. The reason that Flynn resigned is that he was revealed to have discussed the Obama administration’s economic sanctions against Russia in a conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Trump was inaugurated—and to have then lied about having done so.
  • Campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page has admitted that when he was working as a consultant in 2013, he met and discussed the energy industry with a man who later turned out to be a Russian spy. FBI documents indicate that the spy, Victor Podobnyy, was attempting to manipulate Page for use as an unwitting Russian intelligence asset. (And also that Podobnyy was surreptitiously recorded referring to Page as an “idiot.”) Page also criticized the Obama administration’s hard line against Russia in a speech that he gave at a university in Moscow in July 2016, though that on its own isn’t necessarily suspicious.
  • Attorney General, former senator, and Trump campaign adviser Jeff Sessions said during his Senate confirmation hearings that he had not met with any Russian officials during the 2016 campaign, but was then revealed to have met with Ambassador Kislyak in September. (Sessions says the meeting took place only in the context of his work as a senator and that the presidential election was not discussed.)
  • Longtime Trump associate and sometime campaign adviser Roger Stone admitted that he exchanged messages via Twitter with an account that U.S. officials believe was affiliated with the Russian hackers who stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. (There’s no public evidence that Stone knew at the time that the account was affiliated with Russia or that he was communicating with it as an agent of the Trump campaign.)
  • Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner met in December with a Russian banker who has close ties to Putin. He also reportedly asked the notorious Kislyak to help him set up a private line to the Kremlin, but that’s not a fact that’s been confirmed on the record.
  • Trump’s son Donald Jr. was paid $50,000 for an October speech in Paris by a random pro-Russia foreign policy group whose founder’s wife reportedly meets often with Kremlin officials. No one really mentions this one that much, but it’s weird!

And all these people are being investigated by the FBI?

Comey’s earlier testimony confirmed that the FBI investigation is a “counterintelligence” operation that seeks to discover whether there was any “coordination” between the Trump campaign and the Russian intelligence effort to sabotage Hillary Clinton. It’s been reported that Manafort, Flynn, Stone, Kushner, and Page are among the figures who have been scrutinized in the investigation, which has now been taken over by the office of special counsel Robert Mueller (who is himself a former FBI director). Investigators reportedly have evidence that some Trump associates, specifically including Manafort, had several private interactions with Russian operatives during the campaign. Page was reportedly surveilled by a court-approved wiretap.

What does “scrutinized in the investigation” mean?

We don’t really know! A lot of reports have been thrown around about the FBI “looking into” this or that “person of interest,” but there’s no indication that the FBI has uncovered evidence of any specific crime, much less what the details of said crime might be.

Is Comey going to clarify this on Thursday?

No. Comey won’t go into the details of the investigation itself because he doesn’t want to step on Mueller’s continuing work. Rather, what senators are likely to ask Comey about is whether Trump pressured him to drop the Russia investigation and fired him for refusing—which would constitute obstruction of justice or, if you will, a high crime.

Why are you being weird and saying “if you will, a high crime”?

Sorry. It’s because the Constitution says, “The president, vice president and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Ah, gotcha. And when asked about this, what will Comey say?

In May, the New York Times reported that Comey took notes on a February meeting with Trump in which the president said he hoped the FBI would drop its investigation into Michael Flynn (who’s reportedly also being investigated for having indirectly taken money from the government of Turkey):

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Comey, according to the memo. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

That seems like an obstruction-y thing to say, and it’s what prompted the Senate committee to ask Comey to testify. Comey described the February meeting, and others, in detail in the prepared statement he released on Wednesday. Among the other takeaways of the statement, which he will read aloud on Thursday:

  • As Trump had previously claimed, Comey did in fact tell him on three occasions that he was not personally a subject of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation. Whether that means Trump is innocent of any wrongdoing is not clear.
  • In Comey’s telling, Trump suggested that he would not be surprised if someone with a peripheral connection to him—a “satellite” associate—“did something wrong.”
  • Trump seems to have been particularly irritated by the unconfirmed allegation—found in a wildly speculative “dossier” prepared by a former British intelligence operative—that he was once recorded watching Russian prostitutes urinate.
  • Comey says Trump asked him what could be done to “lift the cloud” that the Russia scandal had created for him politically.

What Comey is reportedly not going to say is whether or not he believes the president’s treatment of him constituted obstruction of justice. He apparently thinks of himself as a “fact witness” whose only role is to describe his recollection of specific events. That doesn’t mean senators won’t try to get him to say more, but as we saw on Wednesday during the Senate’s questioning of other intelligence officials, he doesn’t have to take the bait.

What’s the thing about honest loyalty or loyal honesty?

Another thing Comey wrote in his prepared statement is that Trump told him, “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.” When Comey dodged and said, “You will always get honesty from me,” Trump replied, “that’s what I want, honest loyalty.” Nobody is really sure what that means—including Comey, it seems like.

This testimony sounds pretty damaging to Trump. Why haven’t Republicans buried it? Why did they invite Comey to testify to begin with?

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is chaired by North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, has probably been the congressional institution that’s done the most legitimately bipartisan job of conducting Trump administration oversight. North Carolina is a purple state and Burr doesn’t have to run for re-election until 2022, so he has both the leeway and incentive not to look like too much of an administration stooge. Another one of the committee’s Republican members is Maine moderate Sen. Susan Collins, who has publicly criticized Trump on a number of occasions.

This must make Trump very angry!

Indeed, the Washington Post’s Robert Costa reported that Trump is so steamed he might live-tweet critical commentary about Comey’s testimony. (You may recall Trump once suggested on Twitter that he might have recorded his meetings with Comey, only to drop the subject once it became clear that transcripts of those meetings would likely be much more damaging to POTUS than to the FBI director. He also reportedly told Russian officials—yes, Russian officials—during an Oval Office meeting that Comey was a “nut job.” He doesn’t like James Comey.)

If Trump was in fact engaging in a cover-up, and that’s why he fired Comey, what was he covering up?

We still don’t have a solid answer to that. Again, despite vague hints and anonymous reports, no direct evidence of collusion between Russian intelligence operatives and the Trump campaign has yet to surface. The Atlantic reported earlier this week, though, that at least a few individuals close to Trump admit that his 2016 campaign was so disorganized—and so thoroughly staffed by sketchy hustlers—that it’s at least possible that someone with a campaign connection had some sort of inappropriate contact with a representative of the Russian state. Trump seems to have made a similar point with the “satellite” comment Comey described. But, at least according to Comey, Trump expressed most of his displeasure about potential investigations into himself and Flynn, not into his wider circle of advisers and staffers.

Was Trump really only worried about Michael Flynn and the hypothetical pee tape? That’s it?

Who knows! I’m just telling you what Comey says Trump said to him. There have been reports that investigators are looking at Trump and his associates’ financial records in an effort to determine whether any of them were involved in Russia-related money laundering. Given what we know about Trump’s sketchy real-estate connections to Russian and Russia-affiliated individuals, as well as his fast-and-loose attitude toward financial laws, it wouldn’t be surprising if this branch of the special counsel investigation bore fruit. Still, “it wouldn’t be surprising if evidence exists” is a long way from “evidence exists and Trump knows it and is covering it up.”

If evidence does not exist, then why the hell would he fire Comey?

This is Donald Trump we’re talking about. He is the kind of impulsive grudge-holder who might well have spontaneously decided he wanted to fire James Comey because he found the Russia investigation vaguely annoying, without giving any thought to whether it was likely to uncover evidence that he or his associates had done anything illegal, or whether firing Comey would actually bury the investigation.

And that itself could get him into trouble?