WASHINGTON - In the annals of political theater, there may be little precedent for James Comey’s scheduled appearance before a Senate committee Thursday. For the first time, the former FBI director is expected to speak publicly about his conversations with President Trump before he was abruptly fired in the midst of an investigation into possible collusion between Trump associates and Russia.
But Comey's career has been shaped by unusual public dramas, in which he has been cast as a central and often controversial figure.
Starting a decade ago with a riveting recounting of a hospital incident in which he intervened to stave off a White House attempt to extend a secret surveillance program, Comey has never shirked the public spotlight — or wilted in its intense heat.
Yet, as he prepares to outline his communications with Trump prior to his abrupt firing last month, the potentially explosive implications of his testimony could redefine a legacy in government — beyond the hotly disputed actions he took as a former deputy attorney general and during four years as FBI director.
Until disclosures last month that Comey had maintained a file of memos detailing his communications with Trump, including a February meeting in which the president allegedly pressed the then-director to shut down the bureau's investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, the former director had been at the center of firestorm for his pre-election handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. And well before that, however, Comey staked out unusually public positions on a range of hot-button issues that have characterized a historic and contentious tenure in public service.
Here are some highlights:
The hospital testimony
James Comey was a known quantity in Washington well before his 2007 appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Yet his chilling testimony before that panel vaulted his public profile to another level.
Comey, then a former deputy attorney general, was summoned to recount a 2004 showdown with top George W. Bush administration officials in the hospital room where then-seriously ill Attorney General John Ashcroft was suffering from acute pancreatitis.
At Ashcroft's bedside at George Washington Hospital, then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and chief of staff Andrew Card sought to persuade the ailing attorney general to reauthorize a controversial warrantless eavesdropping program. Comey told senators that after learning of the meeting, he rushed to Ashcroft's hospital room, along with then-FBI director Robert Mueller. (Following Comey's firing last month, Mueller was appointed as special counsel to lead the ongoing Russia inquiry.)
Comey held forth in the hushed hearing room, telling lawmakers that he had witnessed "an effort to take advantage of a very sick man.''
When both Comey and Mueller threatened to resign, the White House relented.
The New York Times first reported the incident in 2006, but Comey's vivid recitation offered an instant classic of official Washington's backstage machinations. It also resonated six years later as an example of his independence when he was nominated by President Obama to take over the FBI.
In the ceremony announcing Comey's nomination, Obama appeared to seize on the incident, describing Comey as the "perfect person to carry on the work'' of the FBI.
"To know Jim Comey is also know his fierce independence and deep integrity,'' Obama said.
Apple as public enemy
Before Russia and the Clinton email disclosures, Comey was at the vanguard of a legal battle with Apple Inc. in what quickly morphed into a national debate pitting people's digital security and privacy rights against public safety.
Comey, in court papers and congressional testimony, had sought Apple's assistance in accessing the locked iPhone seized from dead gunman Syed Farook following 2015 terror attack in San Bernardino, Calif., which left 14 people dead.
His pursuit drew the wrath of a slew of tech industry and privacy advocates as an attack on encryption. Apple's Tim Cook said the FBI's request was tantamount to building a backdoor into otherwise secure products that could be used over and over again — jeopardizing the personal security of all Apple users.
Comey, however, defended the effort as necessary to a "thorough and professional investigation under the law."
"The San Bernardino litigation isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message,'' the director said last February. "It is about the victims and justice ... We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land. Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn’t. But we can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead.''
Once calling the dilemma "the hardest problem I've encountered in my entire government career,'' the FBI withdrew its monthlong legal challenge after it was eventually able to secure a contractor's help to break into the phone.
“This is a single phone in a very important investigation,’’ Comey told the House Appropriations Committee last year, adding that the government's request was narrowly tailored and did not threaten the privacy of other Apple customers. “I’m a big fan of privacy; I love encryption,'' Comey told lawmakers. "But if we get to a place in American life where certain things are immune from a judge’s order, then we are in a very different world.’’
Hillary Clinton email controversy
Except for a few close aides, nobody knew what Comey intended say when the FBI summoned the press corps to the J. Edgar Hoover Building on July 5, 2016.
Comey had not even shared the content of his announcement with the attorney general or deputy attorney general, before appearing in front of television cameras to detail a decision not recommend criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server.
The announcement, in which he described Clinton's conduct as "extremely careless,'' prompted an instant furor.
Then-candidate Trump unleashed a stream of tweets, referring to a "rigged system.'' While others, called into question's Comey's decision to go public with a recommendation that is traditionally rendered in private and in consultation with top Justice officials.
The criticism only intensified three months later when Comey notified Congress — 11 days before the election — that he was reopening the email inquiry after a cache of communications were discovered in a separate examination of a laptop computer used by former New York congressman Anthony Weiner, then the estranged husband of Huma Abedin.
Comey announced the closure of the case on the weekend before Election Day, but the recriminations have continued from Clinton, who blames Comey for helping to turn the tide against her.
"I was on the way to winning until the combination of Jim Comey's letter (to Congress) on Oct. 28 and Russian Wikileaks (release of hacked campaign emails) raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me but got scared off," Clinton said in an interview last month.
Comey last month staunchly defended his actions telling a Senate panel — just six days before his firing — that had he remained silent about the potentially new evidence it would have been the "death of the FBI as an institution in America.''
Still, he acknowledged the possible repercussions of his decisions. "It makes me mildly nauseous that we would have had an impact on the election,'' he said.
FBI and Russia 'coordination'
Details about the FBI's inquiry into Russia's intervention in the presidential campaign had been trickling into the public domain for weeks, but Comey's testimony earlier this year before the House Intelligence Committee landed with unusual force.
"We are investigating whether there was any coordination between people associated with the Trump campaign and the Russians,'' Comey said March 20.
The statement, which the FBI director said had been cleared by the Justice Department, confirmed for the first time publicly that the FBI was not only investigating possible election interference but whether there was collusion.
"If any Americans are part of that effort,'' Comey told the panel, "then that is a very serious matter.'' At the same time, the director also strongly rejected Trump's previous assertions that the Obama administration wiretapped the president's New York offices in advance of the 2016 elections.
Trump immediately characterized the assessment as "fake news,'' appearing to acknowledge that Comey's statement raised the prospect that a criminal probe could indefinitely shadow the administration.
Including special counsel Mueller's counterintelligence inquiry, there are now four active congressional investigations into Russia's interference in the 2016 elections.
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