On Monday, the House Intelligence Committee will hold its first, much-anticipated public hearing on Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election. The hearing is significant because it will determine whether all the noise regarding Russia, Trump and the relationship between the two is grounds for further investigation.
There is quite a bit to look out for. But five key players will determine how much bigger this story gets.
1. The enigma: James Comey
Comey’s “October Surprise” is viewed by many Democrats as hurting Clinton’s electoral odds, but Comey is likely not on anybody’s side. Indeed, it was reported that he was unhappy with the Trump team and the false allegations by the President that President Obama had the FBI spy on him. He will likely reaffirm what has already been confirmed by the Senate and House intelligence heads: that Trump’s tweet about wiretapping has no basis in fact. But the key issue is whether he will confirm — or punt — a direct question about whether there is a criminal investigation into the Trump team’s potential collusion with the Russians during the election. If he says yes, the political earth will shake.
2. The rock star: Sally Yates
The early firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates was dubbed by many as Trump’s “Monday Night Massacre.” Trump fired Yates for refusing to carry out his first Muslim immigration ban, but perhaps the most critical legacy of Yates’ brief time as acting attorney general was her warning to the White House that a top adviser in the administration, then National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, could be compromised because of ties to Russia. The White House did not do anything with the information until it was leaked to the press. What did Yates tell the White House? On Monday, she will testify and likely address this burning question.
3. The Real Housewives of the Intelligence Committee: David Nunes and Adam Schiff
Committee Chairman Devin Nunes was on Trump’s transition team and remains unconvinced that Russia tried to help Trump, while the top Democrat, Adam Schiff, has not pulled any punches when it comes to his criticism of the President. Schiff has also made it very clear that he plans to seek testimony from former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, the author of the unconfirmed dossier containing allegations about Trump’s ties to Russia, as part of the committee’s investigation.
Their relationship is, in Facebook terms, complicated. When Nunes recently conceded that there was no “there there” about the Trump wiretap claims, it was a significant moment — for the first time he showed some independence from a White House that had used him as their proxy. Will that independence continue? Meanwhile, Schiff has emerged as a party star and will not let Nunes run away with the questioning or focus.
4. The MIA: Michael Flynn
One of the most relevant players in this inquiry will not be there. Flynn, who recently disclosed ties he had to Turkey during his work on the campaign, also received significant payments from Russia for speeches and work. We have certainly not heard the last from Gen. Flynn, and it is only a matter of time before he is called before either the House or the Senate Intelligence Committee. We also do not know if he is assisting any investigation. In the meantime, the man who won’t be present at the March 20 hearing will certainly be a key topic in the testimony of others.
5. The President: Donald Trump
I suspect he will be watching. His “wiretap” tweets have so captured our collective focus and time that it may be easy to forget just how damaging they were. But they are beside the point.
The real story is Russia: its influence on our elections and what Trump knew about it. This story and this investigation will continue on a path of the slow drip, drip, drip variety; there will be no smoking gun. This is just a preliminary hearing, and there are many more to come, including the Senate Intelligence Committee review.
Few in Congress have fallen in line with the Trump administration’s call to dismiss these reports as “fake news,” and so the longer the Russia issue drags on, the further the spin will shift away from partisan sour grapes. It will instead take the needed shape of a bipartisan demands for real answers.
The President may not be ready for it.