In extraordinary testimony to Congress on Thursday, former FBI Director James Comey accused President Donald Trump of pressuring him to end an investigation into the president’s ousted national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and also claimed that Trump lied about the reasons that Comey himself was ultimately fired.
From their first meeting, Comey said, he felt uncomfortable with the president’s demands that he demonstrate loyalty, so he started taking detailed notes because he suspected Trump “might lie” about their conversations. After being fired, Comey said, he felt the need to leak some of those notes to the media, through a friend, so that the Justice Department would be compelled to appoint a special counsel to probe the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia, which is what ultimately happened.
Speaking under oath to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey said that Trump, during a Valentine’s Day meeting in the White House, urged him to “let this go,” referring to the Flynn probe. Comey deflected senators’ questions on whether Trump was attempting to obstruct justice with his urgings, but he said that the president was making his desires clear.
“I took it as a direction,” Comey said in describing his meeting with Trump, which left him “stunned,” he added. “What was playing in my mind is how we respond.”
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Jill Wine-Banks, a former Watergate prosecutor, said Comey laid out "all of the elements" for a case for obstruction of justice against Trump.
“You need more corroboration,” she said. but you have a pretty credible witness who took contemporaneous notes that he distributed contemporaneously,” belying claims that Comey concocted his story after he was fired.
“You have a request to stop investigating a particular person (Flynn) who was clearly under investigation,” she added. “You have a knowing demonstration of intent when the president asked his attorney general and the vice president to leave the room so he could be alone with Comey to have this conversation. Why would the president do that if he didn’t have a guilty intent?"
A Trump lawyer forcefully rejected such accusations Thursday. Trump’s personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz, disputed that Trump had pressured Comey to let go of the Flynn investigation, and insisted the president never demanded loyalty from the FBI director.
“There are those in government trying to undermine the president with leaked information,” said Kasowitz, adding that Comey has joined that group with his disclosure that he passed on some of his memos to the New York Times through a friend.
Comey acknowledged that there’s no corroboration for his account.
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes” of the conversations, he said – a retort to a threatening Trump tweet, in response to leaked reports about Comey’s memos that he had better hope there were not tapes of their conversations.
Comey testified for more than two hours in an open session of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a packed hearing room that included several well-connected observers, including Preet Bhahara, the former U.S. Attorney from New York who Trump fired. After Comey expressed hope that the White House kept tape recordings, Bhahara tweeted: “We can all agree with Jim Comey that, Lordy, we hope there are tapes.”
Comey has a reputation as a calm and deliberate elocutioner, but on Thursday he displayed moments of passion, especially when defending the agency he once headed. He started his comments by apologizing to his former FBI colleagues: “I did not say goodbye to you properly.” He then described how he became “concerned” and “confused” when Trump and the White House justified Comey’s firing by saying he had undermined morale at the agency.
“Those were lies, plain and simple,” Comey said Thursday.
Comey also offered an impassioned response when asked about the significance of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
“The reason this is such a big deal is we have this big messy wonderful country where we fight with each other all the time but nobody tells us what to think what, to fight about, what to vote for except other Americans,” he said. “And that’s wonderful and often painful. But we’re talking about a foreign government that, using technical intrusion, lots of other methods, tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is a big deal. ... They’re coming after America, which I hope we all love equally.”
While the White House originally cited two factors for Comey’s firing – FBI disarray and a memo by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – Trump later negated that justification. In May, he told NBC News that he had made up his mind to fire Comey before Rosenstein’s memo, and that the Russian investigation was on his mind at the time. On Thursday, the White House pushed back against claims the president had lied when offering concerns about FBI morale. “The president is not a liar,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s principal deputy press secretary.
The president is not a liar.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders
In questioning Comey, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee were generally deferential to Comey, praising his public service and also displaying some partisanship in their line of query. Democrats pressed him on why he started to take such detailed notes about his conversations with Trump, having not done so with two previous presidents. “I was honestly concerned that he (Trump) might lie about the nature of our meeting,” Comey responded.
Republicans pressed Comey to confirm that Trump was not personally a focus of the FBI investigation, which Trump had wanted Comey to acknowledge. Republicans Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John McCain of Arizona also zeroed in on Comey’s investigation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email account, and his dealings with the Obama Justice Department at the time. Comey said he felt some pressure then from Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who he said asked him to refer to the Clinton inquiry as “a matter,” not an investigation.
Following nearly three hours of testimony, the 15-member committee adjourned before meeting in closed session to discuss classified matters with the former FBI director.
In testimony before the same panel on Wednesday, director of national intelligence Dan Coats and Mike Rogers, who heads the National Security Agency, declined to comment on media reports that Trump had asked them to prod the FBI to back off the Russia investigation. Late Thursday, Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the intelligence committee chairman, said his panel will hold a closed session with Coats and others “probably next week.”
During his public testimony, Comey was careful not to make public any revelations about the sprawling, highly classified investigation of possible coordination between Trump’s associates and Russian intelligence agencies prior to the 2016 election. Intelligence officials say there is evidence that Russian agents hacked the emails of top Democrats and orchestrated cyber attacks to spread fake news and sow confusion during the campaign.
That inquiry is now in the hands of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Comey’s predecessor as FBI director. Comey met with Mueller prior to Thursday’s hearing to discuss what boundaries he should not cross in public testimony about the Russia investigation. The disclosure that Comey has also turned over his memos to Mueller creates the possibility that the special counsel will probe the circumstances of the FBI’s director’s firing, examining possibly obstruction of justice.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, issued a statement Thursday suggesting possible criminal violations.
“Today we learned that Mr. Comey, a long-time prosecutor, concluded that the president of the United States intended to obstruct an FBI investigation. That alone is remarkable testimony,” said Whitehouse. “Mr. Comey painted a picture of a president so obsessed with getting out from under the ‘cloud’ of the Russia investigation that he asked the FBI director to ‘let go’ one investigation and to prematurely vindicate Trump in another.”
Republicans are a majority in both the U.S. House and Senate, however, and late Thursday there were few signs that Comey’s testimony had elevated their legal concerns about Trump. Sens. Marco Rubio and McCain, members of the intelligence committee who have been critical of Trump, did not focus their questioning on whether Trump was seeking to shut down the FBI’s inquiry into Flynn.
Two days before the hearing, Rubio and fellow intelligence committee member Cotton had dinner with President Trump and a small group of lawmakers at the White House, and Rubio has been working closely with the White House on rewriting the nation’s Cuba policy in recent weeks.
For his part, Trump by late Thursday afternoon had defied expectations that he might respond to Comey’s testimony via Twitter blasts. When asked about the testimony at an event in the afternoon, Trump smiled through pursed lips but declined to comment, according to a pool report.
Sen. Mark Warner, ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, said after the hearing that “the overwhelming majority of the intel members, Democrats and Republicans feel that Jim Comey is credible.” He added that “even folks who have been his critics don’t question is integrity, his commitment to the rule of law and his intelligence."
At the start of the hearing, chairman Burr pledged that his committee would act in bipartisan fashion to uncover Russian meddling in last year’s presidential race.
“Russian activity during the 2016 election may have been aimed at one party’s candidate, but as my colleague Senator Rubio says frequently, in 2018 and 2020, it could be aimed at anyone at home and abroad,” Burr said. “My colleague Senator (Mark) Warner and I have worked hard to stay in lockstep on this investigation.”
McClatchy’s Lesley Clark, Anita Kumar and Alex Dougherty contributed.