WASHINGTON — The stakes will be high when FBI Director James Comey testifies before a House panel Monday morning on President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that his predecessor “wire tapped” Trump Tower during the campaign last year.
It will be Comey’s first public discussion of the explosive charges that Trump leveled in a series of tweets early on a Saturday morning two weeks ago, accusing President Barack Obama of wiretapping or conducting surveillance last year on Trump and his campaign.
“This could be high drama,” said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, which is holding the hearing. “I have no idea where this hearing is going to end up at the end of the day.”
Lawmakers said they want Comey to give a definitive answer to questions that have hung over Washington: Did the FBI wiretap Trump Tower, Trump or his associates last year as part of an investigation into Trump and the campaign’s ties to Russia? And did Obama have a role?
Committee members also will press Comey on whether the FBI has probed or discovered evidence that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia or that the Obama administration illegally leaked surveillance transcripts for political purposes.
Yet it is not clear how much Comey will reveal as he and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers testify before the committee, as part of its investigation of Trump’s wiretapping assertion and Russian interference in last year’s presidential election.
All indications now are that the FBI had no evidence that Obama wiretapped Trump.
House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) — as well as Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and vice chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) — all have had closed-door briefings by the FBI. They said last week they have seen no evidence for Trump’s claim against Obama.
Schiff said Sunday he expects Comey will say the same.
“We are at the bottom; there is nothing at the bottom,” Schiff told NBC News’ “Meet the Press.” “I hope we can put an end to this wild goose chase.”
Nunes said Friday that the committee had received information it requested from the FBI on “possible surveillance related to Donald Trump or his associates.” He told “Fox News Sunday” the information did not prove wiretapping.
“Was there a physical wiretap of Trump Tower? No,” he said. “There never was, and the information we got on Friday continues to lead us in that direction.”
Nunes did not rule out other types of surveillance and continued to condemn intelligence leaks.
King said he’d like Comey to disclose “everything that’s known at this point.” But King said the FBI director may feel restrained from revealing too much — to protect investigations or to avoid tipping off potential targets.
Trump has refused to back down from his assertions, though he has offered no evidence.
On Sunday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer told Fox News’ “Media Buzz” he believes there is evidence to be unearthed. He said of statements out of Congress: “They said ‘so far.’ ”
The stakes are high for Comey, who has engendered mistrust after going public with comments about Hillary Clinton’s email server during the election; for Obama, who has denied Trump’s claims and wants his name cleared; and for Trump, whose credibility is on the line.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) on Friday said, “Frankly, unless you can produce some pretty compelling proof, President Obama is owed an apology.”
Trump supporters likely won’t be swayed by Monday’s hearing, said Hofstra University presidential scholar Meena Bose. “His approval ratings have remained fairly steady since inauguration, in the low to mid-40s, which indicates that his political base will continue to support him for now,” she said.
But in Washington, there could be ramifications, said John J. Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California.
“If Comey indicates that Trump or his associates were in contact with foreign figures who were under surveillance, there might not be much public reaction at first,” he said. “But members of Congress will understand that such a trail could lead to some very nasty revelations in the future.”
Comey will not have the last word. The intelligence committees in both the House and Senate will continue to investigate.
The House on March 28 will hear testimony from former Obama officials — Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.
And the Senate Intelligence Committee said it will hold a March 30 hearing on Russian interference in other countries and cyberwarfare.
With Emily Ngo and David M. Schwartz