WASHINGTON — The bizarre saga of President Donald Trump’s claims that he was wiretapped by President Barack Obama last year reaches a dramatic climax Monday with FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee.
It’s a moment of political theater that could end in humiliation for Trump, with Comey expected to say there was no wiretapping, debunking allegations that Trump has repeatedly refused to withdraw.
The hearing could also shed light on the state of FBI investigations into the extent of Russian meddling in the election campaign.
Republicans hope Comey will state there is no evidence of collusion between Trump aides and officials from Moscow, a move that could begin to break up a cloud of Russian intrigue that has stifled the early weeks of the administration.
The controversy over the wiretapping claims was unleashed by stunning early morning tweets from the President at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida two weeks ago.
He drew parallels to Watergate and McCarthyism and said Obama was a “Bad (or sick) guy!” for ordering surveillance of his New York residence — allegations the former president quickly denied through a spokesman.
In one sense, the strange controversy over Trump’s tweets has left the president in a position where he is most comfortable politically — at odds with the media and the political and intelligence establishment in Washington.
But it has also evolved into a political distraction at a time when Trump is facing fights over Obamacare repeal and the budget that will help define his first 100 days in office.
This week, for example, the administration should benefit from favorable coverage of the confirmation hearings of Trump’s respected Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch of Colorado, but the Intelligence Committee hearing has the capacity to overshadow the judge’s testimony.
Comey’s appearance will highlight the strange, starring role of the FBI director in an election that many Democrats believe was tilted toward Trump by Comey’s interventions related to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
The FBI chief now finds himself presiding over a politically explosive investigation that could include the behavior of aides to the sitting president amid claims by Democrats of nefarious dealings between Trump’s campaign inner circle and Russian political and intelligence officials.
Trump’s failure to provide evidence for his wiretapping accusation — effectively an allegation of criminal wrongdoing against the former administration — or to draw back the claims tied his White House in knots as it sought to explain and finesse the tweets while sparing the President embarrassment.
But the effort stumbled as every key congressional figure associated with intelligence oversight said there was no evidence of wiretapping. Comey was “incredulous” about Trump’s tweets, sources familiar with the matter said.
The administration’s isolation was clear on the eve of the hearing Sunday.
“Was there a physical wiretap of Trump Tower? No … there never was,” Republican House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes told “Fox News Sunday.”
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, added on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “I hope that we can put an end to this wild goose chase because what the president said was just patently false.”