For former members of the FBI, James Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence committee delivered a shocker: that the president wanted to be alone with the former director of the FBI in the Oval Office and even asked his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to leave the room.
“Why did he kick everyone out of the Oval Office to talk to me?” Comey said to the committee of senators on Thursday. “As an investigator, that is a very significant fact.” Comey called Trump’s request “inappropriate” in his prepared statement and said he asked Sessions to never leave him alone with the president again.
Former FBI officials with cybersecurity and counterintelligence experience agree: It’s highly unusual, even unheard-of, for a high-ranking official, the president included, to ask other officials involved in an investigation for some privacy. Coupled with other revelations, that fact could help prove that Trump tried to obstruct justice, which now rests with newly appointed special counsel Robert Mueller.
“It would be the ultimate uncomfortable situation,” said Mark Pollitt, an FBI agent for 20 years who retired in 2003 as chief of the digital forensics program. “It would certainly raise the hair on the back of anybody’s neck.” Pollitt added that he couldn’t think of any circumstance where the director of the FBI would need to be or should be alone in a room with the president of the United States.
“It would certainly raise the hair on the back of anybody’s neck,” said Mark Pollitt, a 20-year veteran of the Bureau.
Jeff Lanza, another 20-year vet of the Kansas bureau of the FBI who served as a spokesperson in Washington, D.C., agreed.
“That would be very unusual — unless it was something on a personal level,” he said. “I’ve never been in a situation where someone part of an investigation or directors or agents or supervisors were asked, ‘No, let me just talk to this guy here.’”
During one of his meetings with Trump, Comey testified, the president asked him to stop looking into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s communication with Russian officials. Trump’s words, according to Comey’s notes from the meeting, were: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
During the hearing Thursday, Republican Kansas Sen. James Risch pointed out the president said “I hope” multiple times and asked Comey, point-blank, if that meant Trump had directed or ordered him to drop the investigation.
“I took it as a directive,” Comey told Risch. “I took it as this it what [Trump] wants me to do.” As Comey noted in his written testimony before the hearing, he did not, in fact, “let this go.”
And Comey believes that’s why he was fired, as Trump has alluded to in various media reports.
“I take the president at his word that I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” Comey said.
“If my boss came to me and said to let something go, I would say, ‘Do you want me to close the investigation?’” said Jeff Lanza, a 20-year vet of the Kansas bureau of the FBI.
Pollitt said if he were in the same situation as Comey was, he would have “absolutely” taken Trump’s comments as not only an order but one that Trump clearly didn’t want in writing. “I would have figured that if I didn’t comply, my job was at risk,” Pollitt said. “And as it turns out, that’s what happened to Comey.”
Lanza, however, would have asked Trump for clarification before making any big decisions. He noted that it’s not uncommon for people being questioned to ask if they’re personally under investigation or a target of an investigation — which Trump did. (Comey reassured the president on three separate occasions, according to his testimony, that he was not.)
“If my boss came to me and said to let something go, I would say, ‘Do you want me to close the investigation?’” Lanza said. He recalled when an FBI agent destroyed a note from Lee Harvey Oswald, the man arrested for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, allegedly because J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI, told him to. “Hoover said, ‘I don’t ever want to see that again.’ [The agent] took that as a directive,” Lanza said.
During Comey’s hearing, House Speaker Paul Ryan gave a press briefing where he argued Trump didn’t know not to blur the lines between the executive branch and an FBI ongoing investigation. Ryan’s defense of the president amounted to: “He’s just new to this.”
Comey’s testimony featured several other shockingly candid statements, including an early moment where Comey said that Trump defamed him and the FBI — “lies, plain and simple” — which he wouldn’t have said if he were still director of the FBI, according to both Pollitt and Lanza.
But as a private citizen, no longer representing the bureau and all of its agents, Comey spoke more freely. If firing Comey was bad optics for the president, Comey’s account of his interactions with Trump only made the situation worse.
“Comey laid out the portrait of a president who was obsessed with his potential exposure in the Russia investigation and finally decided to rid himself of the meddlesome FBI director to impede the investigation,” said William Yeomans, former deputy assistant attorney general, who spent 26 years at the Department of Justice. “Increasingly, the ball rests with Republicans in Congress to determine how long they will continue to prop up a dishonest president who has, at the very least, obstructed justice.”
Tess Owen contributing reporting to this story.