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Fired FBI Director To Testify In Public Hearing -- WSJ

20 May 2017 6:32 am
By Eli Stokols, Rebecca Ballhaus and Louise Radnofsky 

WASHINGTON -- Former FBI Director James Comey has agreed to testify publicly in Congress, capping a week that may shape President Donald Trump's administration for months, or even years, and prompting White House aides to rethink how they operate in this new political and legal environment.

Mr. Comey was leading an investigation into Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether associates of Mr. Trump colluded with Moscow until he was fired by the president last week.

The former FBI director is expected to testify after Memorial Day, following Mr. Trump's scheduled return from a nine-day overseas trip, according to the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He will almost certainly face questions surrounding the circumstances of his dismissal, which has created a crisis for the White House in recent days. His testimony is expected to be his first public remarks since his firing May 9.

On Wednesday, Robert Mueller, Mr. Comey's predecessor at the FBI, was tapped by the Justice Department's No. 2 official to take over the Russia investigation.

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Trump's fellow Republicans have expressed their concerns about the impact of recent events on the nascent administration.

"Controversy after controversy, cut after cut, is not good for any administration," Sen. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said the president is "probably glad to be leaving town," referring to Mr. Trump's foreign trip that began Friday afternoon. "And a lot of us are glad he is leaving for a few days."

To address the new political environment, some of the president's senior advisers have recently begun a study of the Democratic administration of former President Bill Clinton, examining how it managed to push through major, bipartisan budgets and reform bills, despite being the subject of an independent counsel's probe for five of its eight years.

Mr. Trump's aides have also been pressing for more restraint by the president on Twitter, and some weeks ago they organized what one official called an "intervention." Aides have been concerned about the president's use of Twitter to push inflammatory claims, notably his unsubstantiated allegation from March that his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, had wiretapped his offices.

In that meeting, aides warned Mr. Trump that certain kinds of comments made on Twitter would "paint him into a corner," both in terms of political messaging and legally, one official said.

The damage to Mr. Trump's White House could be seen throughout the operation this week -- in the front cabin of Air Force One on Wednesday, where senior aides sat before a televised newscast carrying on-screen graphics with words and phrases such as "obstruction of justice," and inside the West Wing where fatigued aides said they were worrying about their own futures.

Mr. Trump has denied that his campaign colluded with Moscow. Officials in Russia have denied meddling in the 2016 election.

In recent weeks, the president has weighed making major changes to his communications office. A coterie of former campaign associates, including David Bossie, Anthony Scaramucci, Corey Lewandowski and Jason Miller, were spotted around the West Wing this week, unsettling an already anxious White House staff. One described the White House currently as a "toxic work environment."

Still, Mr. Trump, who is now out of the country for nine days, may not act on a staff revamp soon, according to people familiar with his thinking.

"The president goes through moods where sometimes he wants to blow everything up," said one person close to the White House. The person said the administration hasn't lined up successors for the people Mr. Trump has considered firing and added: "I don't think there will be any wholesale changes" in the near future.

For White House aides and the president's allies, the setbacks are particularly cutting because many are self-inflicted. Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, told lawmakers Friday that he and Attorney General Jeff Sessions discussed Mr. Trump's desire to replace Mr. Comey last winter during the presidential transition period and agreed it was the correct course of action once Mr. Rosenstein was approved by the Senate, according to talking points released by the Justice Department on Friday.

In the ensuing months, Mr. Trump engaged Mr. Comey, later claiming the FBI director had told him he wasn't under investigation -- which associates of Mr. Comey deny -- and allegedly asking Mr. Comey to back off a probe of former national security adviser Mike Flynn. The White House has denied that.

Mr. Flynn was forced to resign after he provided false information to Vice President Mike Pence and others about a conversation Mr. Flynn had with a Russian official in December.

Mr. Rosenstein received Senate approval for his new job in late April, and on May 8 he produced the three-page memo outlining his criticisms of Mr. Comey's performance, which he said on Friday he stands behind.

Mr. Trump fired the FBI director the next day, citing the memo. But over the next two days, the White House shifted its story until Mr. Trump in a television interview said he fired him because he was a "showboat." He acknowledged, though, that the Russia probe weighed in on his decision.

After Mr. Rosenstein announced Wednesday that he had appointed Mr. Mueller to oversee the Russia probe, Mr. Trump summoned to the Oval Office top aides including Hope Hicks, chief strategist Steve Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus, adviser Jared Kushner, communications director Mike Dubke and press secretary Sean Spicer, according to officials.

There, his aides said the appointment of a special counsel could make the administration's job easier in some ways, allowing the president and his staff to avoid answering questions about the probe by pointing to the existence of an independent investigation.

Some of them have spent weeks studying Mr. Clinton's administration, which saw a probe that began about an Arkansas land deal morph into impeachable charges that he had lied to investigators about an affair. The House of Representatives voted to impeach Mr. Clinton, but the Senate didn't convict him. The aides' recommendation to Mr. Trump: cite the continuing investigation, then pivot to the economy, health care and taxes.

Ken Duberstein, a former chief of staff to former President Ronald Reagan, said in an interview that he used to urge the GOP president not to respond to questions that reporters might throw his way involving the Iran-Contra scandal that dogged the final years of his presidency.

"You can't go off on a tangent. You can't answer the sound bite gotcha questions," Mr. Duberstein said.

He said Mr. Trump should not "take the bait of a shouted question or the shiny silver dollar of being able to tweet. Because then the rest of the agenda gets left on the cutting-room floor."

White House aides were encouraged by how Mr. Trump handled a news conference Thursday, which came shortly after a private meeting with the president's personal and White House lawyers.

There, alongside Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Mr. Trump talked about Mr. Comey's unpopularity, called the Russia probe "a witch hunt" and the accusations against him "totally ridiculous."

Then, he switched direction. "We look forward to getting this whole situation behind us so that when we go for the jobs, we go for the strong military, when we go for all of the things that we've been pushing so hard and so successfully, including health care," he said.

--Peter Nicholas, Byron Tau and Janet Hook contributed to this article.

Write to Eli Stokols at eli.stokols@wsj.com, Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com and Louise Radnofsky at louise.radnofsky@wsj.com
 

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May 20, 2017 02:32 ET (06:32 GMT)

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