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US holds breath for high-stakes Comey hearing
The US capital will grind to a halt Thursday, glued to TV sets and computer screens as sacked FBI chief James Comey testifies about whether President Donald Trump asked him to drop a probe into one of his key aide's links to Russia.
Trump, a ratings-obsessed former reality TV star, may not appreciate the worldwide attention paid to Comey's public testimony, being touted as the Super Bowl of high political drama.
Comey is the star witness in the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigations of alleged Russian election meddling last year, with the possible collusion of the Trump campaign. The allegations have drawn comparison to the 1970s Watergate scandal that brought down president Richard Nixon.
Comey was given the go-ahead to deliver potentially explosive testimony after the White House announced it would not use its executive privilege to block his appearance, less than a month after he was controversially sacked by the president.
At least two Washington bars were opening their doors before the 10 am start of the hearing to residents of the capital wanting to watch the drama live.
"Come on... you know you want to watch the drama unfold this Thursday," Shaw's Tavern wrote on its Facebook page, touting a $5 Russian vodka and $10 "FBI" sandwiches for the occasion.
A warm-up act of sorts comes Wednesday, when the same committee hears testimony from Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, National Security Agency (NSA) head Mike Rogers, interim FBI director Andrew McCabe, and Deputy US Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Adding to the drama, a top-secret NSA report leaked to online news outlet The Intercept ramped up pressure on the Russia probe, as it shows that hackers from Russian military intelligence repeatedly tried to break into US voting systems before last year's presidential election.
The NSA document reportedly depicted a hacking operation tied to Moscow's GRU intelligence agency that targeted private US companies providing voter registration services and equipment around the country.
Keen to crack down on leaks, the Trump administration quickly announced the arrest of an intelligence contractor on charges of violating the espionage act.
- 'A lot of smoke' -
Comey's testimony will be his first public remarks since he was summarily fired by Trump May 9, and represents a moment of peril for this already embattled president.
Trump dismissed Comey -- a stunning move by any measure -- as the Federal Bureau of Investigation probes possible collusion between his campaign team and Russia, which US intelligence agencies concluded had sought to tilt the election in the Republican's favor.
Comey is said to have written detailed notes about three conversations he had with Trump while still FBI director, notes which reportedly document the president's efforts to get the FBI to ease the investigation's focus on former national security advisor Michael Flynn.
Any confirmation that Trump tried to press Comey would open the president to damaging allegations that he attempted to obstruct an ongoing FBI investigation.
Several Democrats have warned that attempts to obstruct justice would propel the crisis into territory similar to the Watergate scandal which sank Nixon.
Senator Mark Warner, the intelligence panel's top Democrat, said Trump would have violated longstanding guidelines if he pressured Comey to drop or slow-walk an investigation.
"It would be unthinkable if the president actually did what was reported," Warner told CBS News Sunday.
"We have no smoking gun at this point, but there is a lot of smoke," he said.
- Tone, words, context -
Committee Republican Senator Susan Collins said she was keen to learn precise details and wording of the Trump-Comey exchanges.
"The tone, the exact words that were spoken and the context are so important," Collins said on CBS. "That is what we lack right now, and we can only get that by talking to those directly involved."
What Comey will reveal, if anything, is the topic of intense speculation.
The White House had suggested Trump could invoke executive privilege to protect the confidentiality of presidential discussions, but some aides were wary that may appear like a cover-up.
Trump's decision to fire Comey led the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel, ex-FBI director Robert Mueller, to investigate allegations of collusion.
He reportedly has met with Comey to discuss the probe, and Comey reportedly sought his approval to testify.
Last Wednesday the House Intelligence Committee issued subpoenas for Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen and Flynn -- who was also allegedly part of discussions between the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner and Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak.