Former FBI Director James Comey spoke in public for the first time about his relationship with President Donald Trump and the circumstances that led to his firing in the most hotly anticipated congressional testimony in years.
Comey testified under oath that he did not trust the President to tell the truth, explaining that he kept memos of every encounter he had with Trump because of a “gut feeling” that he would someday have to defend both himself and the FBI.
“I knew there might come a day when I would need a record of what had happened,” he said. “I was honestly concerned he [President Trump] might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it important to document.”
He said several times during the three hour testimony that he believes President Trump fired him because of the Russia investigation – he had confirmed the FBI was investigating Russian interference in the election, which includes possible collusion between Trump associates and Russia, during a congressional testimony in March – and that the first reason Trump had provided – his mis-handling of Hillary Clinton’s private email server, didn’t make any sense to him.
“I believe[…] the President at his word, I was fired because of the Russian investigation, something about the way I was conducting it, the President felt created pressure on him that he wanted to relieve,” Comey said. “Again, I didn’t know that at the time, but I watched his interview, read the press accounts of his conversations, so I take him at his word there.”
Comey did not read the seven-page statement he had prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee that had been released Wednesday, but offered opening remarks after saying that the administration had “defamed” the FBI by citing a loss of public confidence.
“Those were lies, plain and simple,” Comey testified.
But, he said, he was confident the FBI will retain its independence, even in his absence. “The FBI is honest, the FBI is strong and the FBI is and always will be independent,” he said.
A long line to get into Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee had already formed outside the Capitol building early Thursday morning. Comey entered the chamber shortly after 10 a.m, and began his testimony after remarks from Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr and ranking committee member, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner.
“Allegations have been swirling in the press for the last several weeks, and today is your opportunity to set the record straight,” Burr told Comey in his opening remarks.
In his testimony released by the intelligence committee Wednesday, Comey confirmed that Trump had requested that he drop any potential investigations into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, less than a month after a dinner in which he asked him for “total loyalty.”
“When the door by the grandfather clock closed, and we were alone, the President began by saying, “I want to talk about Mike Flynn,”’ Comey wrote about this interaction. “He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”
When asked if these comments could ultimately lead to obstruction of justice charges, Comey said he didn’t know, but expected that Robert Mueller, who has just been appointed Special Counsel for the Russia investigation, would look into it.
Comey said in his testimony he did not discuss this interaction regarding Flynn with Attorney General Jeff Session, because he knew he was about to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. But, he said, Sessions’ actions before leaving him in the Oval Office with Trump indicated that he knew he should not be complying with his boss’s request to leave the room.
“My sense was the Attorney General knew he shouldn’t be leaving which is why he was lingering,” Comey said.
When pressed by committee members about Sessions’ recusal and his connection with the Russia investigation, Comey said those answers had to be reserved for the classified hearing, which took place this afternoon.
In the testimony, Comey also confirmed claims by Trump that he had told the President on three separate occasions he himself was not under investigation. This was a reason Trump and his allies were painting Comey’s prepared testimony as vindication, given Comey’s confirmation that he told Trump he was not personally under investigation.
“Today’s testimony proved what we have known all along: President Trump is not under investigation, there’s still no evidence of collusion, and he did not hinder the investigations in any way,” said Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. “Nobody thinks more of James Comey than James Comey, and his testimony today was simply a last ditch attempt to save face with the American people,”
But the RNC made no mention of the fact that Comey’s testimony also confirms numerous explosive reports that Trump and his aides have either denied or downplayed.
The White House briefed reporters off-camera Thursday during the hearing and called questions about Comey’s worries regarding the President telling the truth “insulting.“ I can definitely say the president is not a liar,” said Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Marc Kasowitz, President Trump’s personal attorney, denied the portions of Comey’s testimony that said Trump had requested total loyalty and a halt to investigations surrounding Flynn, insisting, like McDaniel, that the President had been vindicated.
“The President never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone, including suggestions that Mr. Comey ‘let Flynn go,'” said Kasowitz.