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December 16th, 2017

Insight

James Comey's big Jekyll-and-Hyde question

Aaron Blake

By Aaron Blake The Washington Post

Published June 8, 2017

It has been just a shade over 10 years since James B. Comey delivered one of the most riveting performances ever at a congressional hearing. And it has been a shade over 11 months since he began inserting himself into the 2016 election in a way that many - perhaps including Comey himself - wish he hadn't.

The question today is which polar-opposite performance his latest testimony recalls: The one from 2007 of a principled government official rooting out the politicization of law enforcement, or the one from 2016 of an FBI director who could credibly be accused of unnecessarily injecting a little too much Comey into the political drama of the day - or looking like a "showboat," as President Donald Trump labeled it.

Comey is certainly capable of either. And the difference between the two exists across a fine line.

Former Obama-era Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller put it well in an interview I conducted with him a few weeks back:

I think he is a man of integrity, but he also thinks of himself very much as a man of integrity and likes the spotlight that highlights that. And he's going to enjoy the spotlight of a congressional hearing when he inevitably testifies.

That day has come. Comey certainly will have an opportunity to show off his integrity Thursday when he testifies in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. But striking that balance between looking like a self-serving grandstander and a duty-driven witness will be a difficult one, as Comey's performances show.

The biggest subplot of his testimony is what he will say about his interactions with Trump and whether he will suggest that they amounted to the president obstructing justice in the Russia investigation. We already know what he'll say in his opening statement - detailing in a pretty straightforward manner his interactions with Trump and offering relatively little color commentary about what those interactions mean. Media reports have made clear that Comey intends to be a "fact witness" and isn't going to opine on the obstruction-of-justice question.

But whether that front will hold up under grilling from senators is another question. Miller told me that he thought Comey, by not objecting at the time to Trump's demands for loyalty and requests to tailor the investigation to Trump's liking, may have been trying to build a case against the president. The challenge for Comey is to not make it look like he's gunning for Trump and is merely reporting the facts as they stand.

As The Washington Post's Philip Bump noted Wednesday, trust in Comey isn't very high. He alienated both sides at given junctures in the 2016 race, and today a majority - 55 percent - of Americans say they have just some or not much trust in Comey's account of the Russia investigation. Just 36 percent have at least a "good amount" of trust in Comey. Clearly, damage has been done to Comey's good name, and that colors whatever he says Thursday.

Comey's opening statement, which was released Wednesday, is pretty straightforward. Here's the portion that stood out to me:

My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI's traditionally independent status in the executive branch.

Comey clearly suggests that he thought Trump was getting at something unspoken, and the p-word looms large there: "patronage." It's one thing for Comey to report that Trump requested his loyalty and to simply relay the account of his interactions with Trump to the committee; it's another for Comey to say what he thought Trump was truly doing.

This section of Comey's opening statement indicates he will dip his toe in the latter and go beyond that "fact witness" ideal, at least to some degree. But doing that without appearing to be going after Trump is what will be difficult - and Comey's performances indicate he could come off as either compelling or conceited.

That's the extremely difficult balance he'll seek to strike today.

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