How GOP Senators Question James Comey Could Make Or Break Their Reputation

Pressure is mounting for Republicans to stand up to Trump.

WASHINGTON 鈥 When former FBI Director James Comey appears before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday to discuss the circumstances of his firing by President Donald Trump, his reputation won鈥檛 be the only one on the line.

The Republicans sitting on the dais also face a tremendous amount of pressure. Comey has already submitted written testimony that, among other bombshells, confirms that Trump asked him to lay off the FBI鈥檚 investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The senators can either choose to press the former FBI director in his lone public hearing for more information about one of the most critical investigations Congress has undertaken in decades, or they can use the occasion to run political interference for the nominal leader of their party. There will be very little in between.

鈥淭hese people who thought 鈥 that they were going to go in there and make this about a different topic, I think those people have realized it鈥檚 a dead end,鈥 said GOP strategist Rick Wilson, a vocal Trump critic. 鈥淭his is clearly a story now about the president trying to suborn and corrupt our federal law enforcement agencies to protect himself and his friends. The magical power of Donald Trump to control what the press covers has reached its limit. This is where it ends.鈥

Republican senators, Wilson added, must start distancing themselves from Trump or 鈥減lay defense on the indefensible.鈥

Sens. Richard Burr, Jim Risch and Marco Rubio (from left) all have to decide how they'll approach the former FBI director.
Sens. Richard Burr, Jim Risch and Marco Rubio (from left) all have to decide how they'll approach the former FBI director.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Leading up to Thursday鈥檚 high-profile hearing, many lawmakers have indicated they want to explore those matters that trouble Wilson and others: namely, the extent to which Trump interfered in the FBI鈥檚 Russia probe and the circumstances surrounding Comey鈥檚 firing.

But the pressure for Republicans to help shield Trump politically will be strong too. The White House has indicated that they want to turn the tables on Comey, with reported plans to attack the former director as a 鈥渟howboat.鈥 A pro-Trump nonprofit has bought time for a 30-second spot that will run during Thursday鈥檚 hearing and question Comey鈥檚 credibility.

If past hearings are prologue, some Republicans may be persuaded to mimic those lines or at least try to turn the hearing toward different issues, like the origin of leaks that have damaged Trump and Comey鈥檚 decision not to raise his concerns about interference in real time. GOP lawmakers have already shown a remarkable willingness to admonish but not abandon the president, even as his scandals pile up.

Wilson himself said he doesn鈥檛 have much confidence that Republicans will ask the questions they should, adding that it would 鈥渁bsolutely鈥 cost them politically.

In the days before the hearing, few Republicans on the Intelligence Committee hinted how they would approach the grilling of Comey. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said he wants Comey to explain the purpose of the memos he reportedly kept and whether Russian officials engaged with any American citizen. But not much more.

That said, the committee includes senators who have been deferential to Trump as well as those who have been more openly critical.

Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) scolded reporters for chasing stories that Trump had shared classified information with Russian officials, arguing that the focus should be on those leaking details of the president鈥檚 private meetings. Risch defended the administration in an Intelligence Committee hearing on Wednesday when lawmakers questioned Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, and Adm. Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, about conversations they鈥檇 had with the president concerning the FBI鈥檚 investigation.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who chairs the Intelligence Committee, has also attempted to shift attention away from Trump and onto the press. When reports emerged that Comey had kept detailed notes on that key meeting with Trump, Burr called on The New York Times to supply the memo and openly doubted that the president had asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation.

鈥淭he director of the FBI shared more information with Sen. Warner and myself than any director has ever shared,鈥 Burr said. 鈥淚 think something as material as that, probably would have been something he would have shared, had it happened.鈥

But along with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chair of the committee, Burr has also come to Comey鈥檚 defense when Trump has criticized him in the past.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a firebrand who has been one of Trump鈥檚 harsher critics, will also have a chance to question Comey. As an ex-officio member of the committee, he is allowed to sit in on the hearing. How he will focus his questions is not yet clear. When asked his thoughts about Comey鈥檚 prepared testimony on Wednesday evening, McCain simply said that he wasn鈥檛 surprised and that more shoes will drop.

Because they鈥檙e up for re-election only every six years, senators are often less vulnerable to political pressure than their brethren in the House. But Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian, said that senators would still run real risks if they came off as administration patsies on matters as serious as these.

鈥淚f the scandals turn out to be real and they didn鈥檛 ask the tough questions, then they become part of the problem,鈥 Zelizer said of Republicans. 鈥淚f they don鈥檛 say anything, if they let it slide, that鈥檚 dangerous. ... It would show partisanship is so powerful a force that our institutions can weaken.鈥

Some preview of how Republicans will handle Comey may have come during Wednesday鈥檚 committee hearing with Coats and Rogers. During that session, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was one of the most aggressive GOP senators on the question of Trump鈥檚 involvement in the Russia probe. Rubio pushed Coats and Rogers on whether Trump had asked them 鈥 as opposed to merely pressuring them 鈥 to interfere in the FBI investigation.

When Coats said he wasn鈥檛 prepared to answer that, Rubio didn鈥檛 leave it alone, arguing that he wasn鈥檛 seeking any information that was classified. He was fairly dogged and pointed. And even then Wilson didn鈥檛 think the senator went far enough.

鈥淎s a Republican, as a conservative, I鈥檓 deeply concerned that my party has continued to believe that just because Trump makes the media angry, that it鈥檚 sufficient enough to forgive every sin,鈥 Wilson said. 鈥淚鈥檓 worried about representatives who are willing to burn themselves for this guy for nothing in return.鈥