(CNN) — Fired FBI Chief James Comey seizes center stage in a compelling national political drama Thursday as he delivers congressional testimony that has grave implications for the fate of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Comey will appear before the Senate intelligence committee at 10 a.m. ET in one of the most eagerly awaited hearings in decades, and will publicly contradict aspects of Trump’s accounts of their private conversations.
His testimony represents a pivotal moment in the saga of Russian election hacking and alleged collusion by Trump aides that has cast a dark shadow over the opening months of the new administration.
Comey will face questions about whether Trump abused his power in demanding loyalty from the former FBI chief. He will also be grilled on claims the President obstructed justice by asking him to shut down part of the bureau’s Russia probe.
The hearings will represent a rare moment of common national experience of the kind that has become rare in the fragmented media landscape of the Internet age. National television networks are breaking into regular programing to cover the blockbuster hearing.
The drama seems destined to take its place alongside televised Capitol Hill cliffhangers of the past, including the Anita Hill hearing in 1991, parts of the Watergate hearings in 1973 and the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, which all contributed vignettes that have gone down in political lore.
In essence, this comes down to a showdown between two versions of the same events — one offered by President Donald Trump, the other presented by the respected FBI director whom he fired.
And given Trump’s obsession with news coverage and belief that he has been unfairly maligned in the Russia probe, his reaction to Comey’s testimony — possibly on Twitter — is likely to add to the atmospherics of a seminal political moment.
Comey’s penchant for making a theatrical splash has already turned what was set to be a one-day drama into a two-day feeding frenzy, after he released his prepared opening statement Wednesday afternoon, transfixing Washington.
The former FBI director wrote that the President had demanded his loyalty, pressed him to drop a probe into ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn and repeatedly pressured him to publicly declare that Trump himself was not under investigation. Comey made clear his discomfort with the President’s actions, saying it seemed as though Trump was trying to create a “patronage relationship” with him. He will also testify Thursday that he felt compelled to immediately write down details of his encounters with Trump for the record. He also said he implored Attorney General Jeff Sessions to shield him from future one-on-one conversations with the President.
Democrats at Thursday’s hearing will highlight one of the most stunning revelations of Comey’s testimony, his statement that Trump asked him to halt the FBI probe into Flynn’s conversations during the transition with Russia’s ambassador to Washington.
He wrote that Trump said during a private meeting in the Oval Office: “‘I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
“I replied only that ‘he is a good guy.'” Comey wrote, then added: “I did not say I would ‘let this go.'”
Comey’s account of this encounter conflicts with Trump’s own statements. At a news conference May 18, the President was asked whether he had asked the FBI director to pull the plug on the Flynn component of the Russia investigation.
“No. No. Next question,” Trump said.
Democrats believe the exchange between Trump and Comey about Flynn is more evidence that could build a case that the President obstructed justice — which in several times in history has been regarded as an impeachable offense.
“I think it is devastating. … If the President said those words, I believe it is absolutely devastating, completely inappropriate,” said New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, on CNN.
While Comey’s prepared testimony electrified Washington, it remains unclear how much further he will go in the hearing. For instance, he’s not expected to make an assessment whether Trump obstructed justice. Given that he is now a witness rather than a prosecutor, the former FBI chief is expected to leave that judgment to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Comey’s early release of his testimony gave Democrats a chance to hone their questions for Thursday, but also flushed out how Republicans will respond.
Trump’s personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz highlighted Comey’s statements in the testimony that he had told Trump twice and congressional leaders once that the President was not a target of the FBI’s Russia investigation.
“The President is pleased that Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the President was not under investigation in any Russian probe,” said Kasowitz in a statement.
“The President feels completely and totally vindicated. He is eager to continue to move forward with his agenda.”
But Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that selectively reading Comey’s testimony did not exonerate Trump.
“You have got to wait until the end of the investigation before anybody can say they are vindicated,” Whitehouse said.