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Washington is bracing for a high-profile hearing Thursday, when fired Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Director James Comey is due to testify on Capitol Hill. (June 6) AP

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.(Photo: Jacquelyn Martin, AP)

WASHINGTON — Don’t expect the eight Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee to act in unison Thursday when it comes to a strategy for how to question former FBI director James Comey about his conversations with President Trump.

Analysts say some GOP senators may seek to soften potential injury to the White House by trying to discredit Comey or shifting the focus of the hearing to who leaked classified information about the FBI’s investigation of possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials during last year’s election. But other Republican senators will want to make sure they are seen as independent truth-seekers rather than Trump apologists, experts say.

“We’re at a point now where I would think that the pressure to not be seen as toeing the party line for the White House would probably be more powerful than the pressure to protect the president in some way,” said Grant Reeher, a political science professor and director of the Alan K. Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University. “If you are seen as someone who took this particular moment in history to try to provide some cover for the president or ask questions in a way that protected him, that’s not going to play very well for your political future.”

However, Reeher said not everything is a political calculation. Unlike most congressional committees, where partisan bickering is the norm, the Senate Intelligence Committee prides itself on its bipartisanship and independence and wants its investigation to be taken seriously.

“I think a lot of the folks that are on this committee really want to find out exactly what happened between the president and Comey and believe it’s important for them to get to the bottom of it and ask the questions the public wants answered,” Reeher said.

Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., appears to be trying to lead the committee in a bipartisan way to prove the credibility of the panel’s investigation, said Frances Lee, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland.

“Clearly, the Intelligence Committee is trying to rise above this ferocious partisanship that characterizes almost everything else,” she said.

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But that doesn’t meant that Trump won’t have his defenders.

“Republicans could try to discredit Comey in some way, but that probably isn’t prudent because it just looks bad to go after a former FBI director and he has a lot of supporters in the Intelligence Community,” said Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. “It’s more likely that they would try to change the conversation by focusing a lot more on leaks to take the focus off what Trump did or didn’t say to Comey. That way, they can claim they’re protecting national security and won’t come across as being overly aggressive to a former FBI director.”

Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, has been one of the strongest advocates — along with Trump — of going after the people who have leaked information about the president and his associates. Risch defended Trump when the president was criticized last month for disclosing sensitive intelligence information to Russian officials in a May 10 meeting in the Oval Office. He called whomever leaked Trump’s conversation a “weasel” and a “traitor” who should be punished.

The president and the White House also have sought to turn the focus of the Russia investigation to the leaks. Trump tweeted last week that the leaks were the “big story.”

Lee said that if any GOP senator plays the role of “partisan attack dog,” it will most likely be Sen. John Cornyn. The Texas lawmaker, who is the second-highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, responded to Comey’s firing last month by blasting Democrats for their hypocrisy in defending Comey. He pointed out that Democrats skewered Comey last year for his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while serving as secretary of State.

Sen. John Cornyn talks with reporters about President Trump's decision to fire James Comey on May 10, 2017, on Capitol Hill. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin, AP)

“Cornyn is a more partisan figure than some of the other Republicans,” Lee said. “When you look at the committee roster, there aren’t that many full-throated defenders of President Trump’s firing of Director Comey. They tend to be Republicans who said they were troubled by it or offered somewhat neutral statements about wanting to see more facts.”

They include senators such as Burr, Susan Collins of Maine, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida, who represent swing states with divided electorates. And even one of the most conservative senators, James Lankford of Oklahoma, has shown what Pitney called “signs of independence.” Lankford, in an interview last month on CNN, vowed not to “do cover-up for anybody.”

Still, the hearing is more politically complicated for Republican senators than for Democrats because Trump remains popular among the GOP base even as his approval numbers have fallen among the general public, Pitney said.

“On the one hand, Republicans have to think about their primary electorate,” Pitney said. “But they also have to think about the longer-term. Do they want their careers defined by a blind defense of Donald Trump? If they think about it, in most cases, I believe the answer will be no.”

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