By Devlin Barrett, Ellen Nakashima and Ed O'Keefe June 8 at 3:19 PM
Former FBI Director James B. Comey said in dramatic testimony Thursday he could not trust President Trump to tell the truth, leading him to take extraordinary steps to document their private conversations, and to make public the details to spur the appointment of a special counsel to probe the administration over possible links to Russia.
He also accused White House officials of telling “lies, plain and simple,” about him and the FBI in an effort to cover up the real reason for his dismissal last month.
“There’s no doubt that I was fired because of the Russia investigation,’’ Comey said in highly anticipated testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee. “The endeavor to change the way the Russia investigation was conducted, that is a big deal.’’
He also revealed that he was so skeptical about whether Justice Department leadership could handle the politically explosive probe after he was fired, he arranged for details of his private conversations with the president to be made public, so that an outside lawyer would take over the case.
Over nearly three hours of testimony, Comey grimly recounted the events that he said showed the president sought to redirect the Russia probe away from his former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Comey declined to say if he thought the president had obstructed justice, saying that was a determination to be made by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III. But his detailed account of private talks in which Trump repeatedly brought up the Russia matter, and asked him to issue public statements about it or drop the probe into Flynn, left no doubt in Comey’s mind why he was canned.
“I know I was fired because something about the way I was conducting the Russia investigation was putting pressure on [Trump],’’ Comey said.
In response to Comey’s testimony, Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, sent out a statement saying the president “never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone,’’
Kasowitz also accused Comey of trying to “undermine this administration with selective and illegal leaks of classified information and privileged communications.’’
A former federal prosecutor, Comey testified that he took detailed notes of his private talks with the president — a departure from his practice with Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama. Comey said he did so because he was “honestly concerned’’ that the president might lie about what had been said in their meeting. He said the two spoke in private a total of nine times before Comey was fired, he said.
Comey’s written account of those discussions, made public on Wednesday, has fueled the debate over whether the president may have attempted to obstruct justice by pressuring the FBI director about a sensitive investigation.
“This is not a witch hunt, this is not fake news,’’ said the senior Democrat on the panel, Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.). “This is an effort to protect our country from a new threat that quite frankly will not go away anytime soon.’’
Comey began his testimony by saying he became “confused and increasingly concerned’’ about the public explanations by White House officials for his firing on May 9, particularly after the president said he was thinking about the Russia investigation when he decided to fire him.
He wasted little time repudiating White House statements that he was fired in part because of low morale among FBI employees, and those employees’ supposedly soured attitude toward his leadership.
“The administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led,’’ Comey said. “Those were lies, plain and simple. And I’m so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them, and I’m so sorry the American people were told them.’’
In his written testimony released Wednesday, Comey described being summoned to a private dinner at the White House in January with the president, who told him: “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
Comey said he “didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.”
Comey said the conversation, in which Trump raised the question of whether Comey intended to stay as FBI director, despite their three prior discussions about him doing so, raised concerns in his mind.
“My common sense told me what’s going on here is he’s looking to get something in exchange for granting my request to stay in the job,’’ Comey testified.
In testimony broadcast live on national television networks, Comey described his state of mind as he tried to navigate a series of tense conversations with the president about the investigation into possible coordination between Trump associates and Russian operatives.
Comey made clear he felt the discussions were problematic and improper, in that Trump repeatedly pressing him about specific investigations that involved people close to the president.
On Feb. 13, Flynn was forced to resign for misleading Vice President Pence about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. At the end of 2016, the FBI investigation into Flynn wasn’t going anywhere, but then on Dec. 29, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia and Flynn had a phone call with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about those sanctions, according to U.S. officials briefed on the probe.
At the time Flynn was fired, he was being investigated for possibly lying about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, Comey said.
The day after Flynn’s ouster, a number of senior officials met the president in the Oval Office to discuss terrorism. At the end of the meeting, according to Comey, Trump asked everyone to leave but Comey.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions lingered behind until the president told him, too, to leave, Comey said.
“My sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn’t be leaving which is why he was lingering,’’ Comey said. “I knew something was about to happen which I should pay very close attention to.’’
Once they were alone, the president told Comey he hoped he could let go of the investigation into Flynn, who had been forced out as national security adviser a day earlier.
“When it comes from the president, I took it as a direction,’’ Comey said. He said he was shocked and concerned about the president’s request, but decided not to tell Sessions about it because he expected the attorney general would soon recuse himself from the Russia probe, which he eventually did.
After the meeting with Trump, Comey said he asked Sessions to prevent him from being left alone again in a room with the president. “His body language gave me the sense of, ‘What am I going to do?’ ” Comey said.
His account made clear that his relationship with Trump was fraught from their very first meeting, which occurred before the inauguration, when he the president-elect that a dossier of unsubstantiated allegations against Trump had been circulating around Washington.
“I didn’t want him thinking that I was briefing him on this to sort of hang it over him in some way,’’ Comey said. “He needed to know this was being said, but I was very keen to not leave him with the impression that the bureau was trying to do something to him.’’
Comey acknowledged, as the president has claimed, that he repeatedly told Trump that he was not personally under investigation. But he also said that in private meetings and one-on-one phone calls, the president repeatedly asked him to say publicly that the he was not personally under investigation — something Comey did not want to do.
After firing Comey, the president tweeted a suggestions that there could be tapes of their private talks.
“The president tweeted on Friday after I got fired that I’d better hope there are not tapes,” Comey said. That made the ex-FBI director think any such tapes would back up his account of Trump’s improper statements, so he said he asked a friend of his to share a memo he had written about the February conversation with a reporter.
“I thought it might prompt the appointment of a special counsel,” Comey said.
Asked by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) why he felt he had the authority to do that, Comey replied: “As a private citizen, I felt free to share that. I thought it was very important to get it out.”
The friend is Daniel Richman, a law professor and a former federal prosecutor who confirmed his role but declined further comment. The reporter is Michael Schmidt of the New York Times, who declined to comment.
A special counsel was appointed — Robert S. Mueller III, who is a former colleague of Comey’s — and Comey has provided him with his memos, he testified Thursday.
Comey said he still has no idea whether the president actually has tapes of their conversations, but said, “I hope there are and I will consent to the release of them … The president surely knows whether he taped me, and if he did my feelings aren’t hurt.’’
The former director also divulged new details about his concerns about former Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch’s handling of the probe into Hillary Clinton’s private email server during the Obama administration. While the case was ongoing, Lynch asked him to refer to the Clinton email probe as a “matter,” rather than an “investigation.”
Comey said he was concerned by Lynch’s instruction that he refer to it as a “matter” because the wording too closely tracked how the Clinton campaign was trying to describe the FBI investigation.
The former FBI director said he thought that wording “looked silly’’ and “gave the impression that the attorney general was looking to align the way we talked about our work with the way the campaign’’ talked about it. “That was inaccurate,’’ he said. “That gave me a queasy feeling.’’