Fired FBI Director James Comey on Thursday leveled a series of damaging accusations against the president of the United States, testifying that Donald Trump pressured him to close a probe into a top former aide, fired him in an attempt to change the course of the larger Russia probe, and then launched a campaign of “lies” to discredit him.
In bombshell testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee that could reverberate in Washington for months, Comey refused to say whether he believed the president himself colluded with Russian officials to meddle in the 2016 election, offering to speak about it privately with lawmakers.
And he provided some statements that could help the White House, including that Trump himself was not under investigation as of May 9, when Comey was fired, and that Comey was never explicitly asked by Trump or his aides “to stop” the FBI investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
But Comey also delivered damning statements. He said that he believed Trump gave him a “direction” in a private Oval Office meeting in February to “get rid of” the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and that Trump fired him because he wanted to change the course of the Russia probe.
“It’s my judgment I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” Comey said. “I was fired in some way to change — or the endeavor was to change the way the Russia investigation is being conducted. That is a very big deal.”
In testimony being closely watched by Trump, his allies and leaders across Washington, Comey provided in sometimes painstaking detail his personal interactions with Trump that preceded his abrupt ouster. Some of his harshest words came early in the hearing , as Comey suggested his surprise at his firing turned to anger as Trump and his aides offered a series of evolving explanations for the ouster.
“He had repeatedly told me I was doing a great job and he hoped I would stay,” Comey said, relaying a series of conversations with the president. “He told me repeatedly he had talked to lots of people about me including our current attorney general and had learned I was doing a great job and was extremely well-liked by the FBI.”
“It confused me when I saw the president on TV saying he actually fired me because of the Russian investigation,” he said. “I was also confused by the initial explanation offered publicly that I was fired because of decisions I’d made during the election… That didn’t make any sense to me.”
Comey accused the White House of flatly lying when it said the FBI workforce was widely dissatisfied with his performance. “The administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI, by saying the organization was poorly led,” the ex-FBI chief said. “Those were lies, plain and simple.”
The direct accusation was an extraordinary moment in a scandal that has engulfed Trump’s presidency and threatens to consume even more of the administration’s focus in the coming months, as Trump faces the question of whether he tried to obstruct justice.
Comey has been a central player in the ongoing controversy about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and his decision to probe potential collusion between Trump associates and Russian leaders irked the president. Trump’s move to oust Comey fueled allegations that the president pressured not only the former FBI director but other top officials to intervene in the Russia probe.
During his testimony, which marked Comey’s first public remarks since his abrupt firing, senators from both parties were largely deferential to the former FBI chief. But Republicans raised questions about why Comey didn’t raise his concerns directly to Trump before he memorialized them in memos that are now being used as evidence in an ongoing special counsel probe led by former FBI director Robert Mueller.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) noted that Trump also only allegedly asked Comey to back off the Flynn probe in one encounter that Comey described. “If this seems to be something the president’s trying to get you to drop it, this seems like a pretty light touch to drop it,” Lankford said.
The hearing gripped Washington for most of the day Thursday. Trump didn’t tweet about it, despite signals from aides that he might, but the Republican National Committee sent rapid response emails throughout the hearing intended to undercut Comey’s testimony. House Speaker Paul Ryan defended Trump, attributing his interactions with Comey as an example of his naivete about how a president should talk with a top law enforcement official, rather than anything more nefarious.
Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. and top aide Dan Scavino criticized Comey throughout the hearing as well.
“He was more than willing to leak something against @realDonaldTrump but not something that exonerates him? Classy guy,” the younger Trump tweeted as Comey revealed he asked a friend to leak memos of his encounters with the president to The New York Times.
Deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was defiant when asked about Comey’s “lies, plain and simple” line.
“No, I can definitively say the president is not a liar,” Sanders told reporters at the White House during an off-camera briefing Thursday. “It’s frankly insulting that that question would be asked.”
Trump’s outside lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, issued a statement saying that Comey’s testimony “finally confirmed” what Trump has said: that he is not personally under investigation by the FBI.
And Trump himself declined to bring up Comey as he delivered a speech to evangelical Christian activists across town.
Throughout his testimony, Comey was careful to never explicitly accuse Trump of obstruction of justice. Instead, he detailed in both a prepared statement and during the live hearing a series of conversations in which Trump told Comey “I hope you can let this go,” regarding the FBI’s ongoing probe into Flynn, and asked Comey what he could do to “lift this cloud” of the larger Russia investigation.
Comey said Mueller would likely resolve the question of obstruction in his probe.
“I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct,” he said, adding, “The special counsel will work …to try and understand what the intention was there.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr directly asked Comey, “Did any individual working for this administration, including the Justice Department, ask you to stop the Russian investigation?”
Comey replied “no,” but he also said he took Trump’s pressure-filled words on the Russia probe as “a direction.”
In explaining why he didn’t immediately tell other top law enforcement officials about his conversations with Trump about Flynn, Comey said, “We don’t want the agents and analysts working on this to know the president of the United States has asked, and when it comes from the president, I took it as a direction, to get rid of this investigation because we’re not going to follow that request.”
Comey also addressed Trump’s tweet in which he wrote on May 12, “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
“Look, I’ve seen the tweet about tapes. Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey said. “I hope there are and I’ll consent to the release of them…..The president surely knows if he taped me and if he did my feelings aren’t hurt. Release all the tapes.”
In early testimony, Comey declined to comment on a salacious dossier, compiled by a former British intelligence official, saying he’d save his remarks on that for a closed meeting with the committee later. He also elaborated on his written statement suggesting he believed Trump had tried to develop a patronage relationship with him.
The statue of justice is blindfolded, he said, adding “You’re not supposed to be peeking out to see if your patron is pleased.”
Describing one Oval Office meeting with the president on Feb. 14, Comey said he believed Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner realized the president was being inappropriate and lingered even though Trump had asked them to leave the room.
Asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) why he didn’t stop Trump and tell him his requests regarding Flynn were inappropriate, Comey said it was a “great question.”
“Maybe if I were stronger, I would have,” Comey said. “I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in.”
Republican senators suggested that Comey might be exaggerating the significance of Trump’s comments.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida took issue with Comey’s assertion that Trump’s statement that he hoped the Flynn matter would be let go was an implicit directive that should be kept from the agents working on the investigation. He observed that at a press conference Trump publicly declared Flynn as good man who’d been unfairly maligned.
“I imagine your FBI agents knew that,” Rubio said. “The president’s wishes were known the next day.”
But Comey said the statement delivered to him in the Oval Office was far more ominous than a public expression of discontent with the investigation.
“There’s a big difference in kicking superior officers out of the Oval Office, looking the FBI director in the eye and saying, ‘I hope you let this go,’” the former FBI chief said. “I think if agents as good as they are heard the president of the United States did that, there’s a real risk of a chilling effect on their work. That’s why we kept it so tight.”
While Comey dismissed several anonymously sourced news accounts about the Russian affair as inaccurate, he confirmed Thursday that he was the source behind one particular account: a May 16 New York Times report that indicated he had kept memos documenting his conversations with the president, including the alleged request to let the Flynn matter “go.”
Comey said that—after Trump said on Twitter there might be tapes of Oval Office conversations—he asked a Columbia law professor to give the information to a journalist, with the idea that such a disclosure could lead to a special prosecutor.
“My judgment was, I need to get that out into the public square. I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself for a variety of reasons,” Comey said. “I asked him to because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel.”
Comey said he no longer has the memos he wrote about his conversations with the president. “I don’t have any of them anymore. I gave them to the special counsel,” the ex-FBI director said.
Another previously undisclosed fact that emerged during the testimony was that it was acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente who decided not to publicly declare that Trump was not under investigation when the agency confirmed the broader inquiry publicly in March. Trump allegedly pressured multiple officials to publicly clear him.
Comey said Boente was concerned that indicating that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were not under investigation would lead to demands for similar assurances about other individuals.
Even before the hearing began, Trump’s allies started the process of countering Comey’s testimony, taking issue with some of the ex-FBI director’s most damaging claims: that the president sought a pledge of loyalty and that he tried to derail the investigation into dismissed Flynn.
“The president disputes ever asking for James Comey’s loyalty, and he disputes that he ever in any way asked Comey to let go the case against Flynn,” a person familiar with Trump’s legal team said Thursday morning. The statement tracked closely with previous denials issued by the president in TV interviews.
Comey’s appearance came a day after a panel of top intelligence and law enforcement officials appearing before the same committee infuriated senators of both parties by refusing to answers questions about their interactions with the president.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers said they had not felt pressured to do anything illegal or improper, but they rebuffed efforts to get them to discuss conversations in which Trump allegedly asked them to try to rein in or shut down the FBI investigation.
Many observers compared the build-up to Thursday’s testimony to some of the most attention-grabbing Congressional hearings in recent decades, including Lt. Col. Oliver North’s appearance during the Iran-Contra saga, Anita Hill’s showdown with Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, and a series of hearings probing the Watergate affair that ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
The hearing on Thursday wasn’t all focused on Trump. Comey seemed to please Republicans by going further than he has before in detailing his concerns about the appearance of political interference in the probe into Hillary Clinton’s private email account while she was secretary of state.
The former FBI director said he was particularly disturbed by a request from then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch to publicly describe the investigation into Clinton’s email set-up as a “matter” rather than as an “investigation.”
“We were getting to a place where the attorney general and I were both going to testify and talk publicly about it. I wanted to know was she going to authorize us to confirm we have an investigation. She said, ‘Yes, don’t call it that, call it a matter.’ I said why would I do that? She said, just call it a ‘matter,’” Comey said, confirming press reports in recent months. “That concerned me because that language tracked the way the [Clinton] campaign was talking about the FBI’s work and that’s concerning.”
Comey said that statement and Lynch’s airport tarmac meeting with Bill Clinton undermined the Justice Department’s ability to be seen as impartial when declaring that no charges would be filed.
“I didn’t believe she could credibly decline that investigation–at least not without grievous damage to the Department of Justice and to the FBI,” the ex-FBI chief said.
Comey also revealed that he mulled publicly calling for a special prosecutor to take over the Clinton email probe, but decided against it.
“I considered whether I should call for the appointment of a special counsel. And decided that would be an unfair thing to do because I knew there was no case there,” the former FBI director said. “Calling for the appointment of special counsel would be brutally unfair because it would send the message, uh-huh, there’s something here. That’s my judgment.”
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