Former FBI Director James Comey accused President Trump of choosing to “defame me and, more importantly, the FBI” in blistering testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday in which he answered questions about the circumstances around his firing as well as Russian interference in the U.S. election.
Comey said he was well aware that as FBI director he served at the pleasure of the president and could be fired for any reason. But he also said he couldn’t just stand by and watch as his performance as director and that of the FBI were mischaracterized by Trump.
“The administration then chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI by saying the organization was in disarray,” he said. “Those were lies, plain and simple.”
In testimony submitted beforehand, Comey detailed nine different conversations he’d had with the president and described times when Trump asked him to pledge his “loyalty,” to let the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn go, and to “lift the cloud” brought about by the investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“He might lie”
In his live testimony Thursday, Comey said he had concerns about Trump and the White House’s behavior, and that’s why he started keeping detailed notes starting with this first one-on-one meeting on January 6 in which the then-president-elect asked for an assurance he was not under investigation by the FBI.
“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting,” Comey said. “It led me to believe I gotta write it down, and I gotta write it down in a very detailed way.”
Addressing Russian hacking interference with the 2016 election, Comey said he was certain that the Russians had attempted to disrupt the U.S. election. “The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose, they did it with sophistication,” he said. But he also said he is “confident” that no votes had been “altered.”
As to why he was fired, Comey said he doesn’t know for sure what the reason was. However, he said, “I take the president at his word [per the letter that I was fired because of the Russia investigation.” Trump later told NBC’s Lester Holt that the Russia investigation had been on his mind when he fired Comey, and he reportedly told Russian officials visiting the Oval Office a few days later that firing Comey had relieved pressure off the Russia investigation.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, also asked Comey why, if he believed Trump acted inappropriately in asking Comey to “let” the investigation into Flynn go, he hadn’t immediately told the president so.
“Maybe if I were stronger, I would have,” Comey replied. “I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in.”
“I hope there are tapes”
Comey added that he also found it “a very significant fact” that Trump had asked officials Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner to leave the room before Trump asked him about dropping the Flynn investigation. Legal analysts have told VICE News that this indicates Trump knew what he was asking could be improper, which is essential to establishing a case that Trump obstructed justice.
Comey did discuss his one-on-one conversations with Trump with a tight circle of FBI leaders, he said, debating whether they should bring it up with outside officials. But the group eventually decided that there was no way to corroborate Comey’s account.
At least, they thought so — until Trump suggested in mid-May he had tapes of his conversations with Comey. Despite having weeks to potentially ask the president if this was true, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday told reporters in a bizarre twist that she had “no idea” whether the White House had a taping system.
“Lordy,” Comey said, “I hope there are tapes.”
Comey also revealed that, after his firing, he gave his memo detailing his conversation with Trump about Flynn to a friend in order to “make sure this gets out.” That friend, a law professor at Columbia, evidently told the New York Times about that memo — and the paper’s report triggered conversations about whether Trump had obstructed justice.
“Bob Mueller’s job”
“My judgment was I needed that to get into the public square to get a special counsel appointed,” Comey told the committee. He succeeded: Former FBI Director Robert Mueller was soon appointed as special counsel, and now heads the federal investigation into the Russia probe.
Comey ultimately demurred when asked if Trump’s actions rose to the level of obstruction of justice, an impeachable offense. Such a determination, Comey said, is now “Bob Mueller’s job.”
“Bob Mueller is one of the finest people and public servants this country has ever produced,” he told senators. “You can have high confidence that when it’s done, he’s turned over all the rocks.”