Former FBI Director James Comey said Thursday that he doubted President Donald Trump’s honesty and suggested that he made inappropriate requests of him regarding fired national security adviser Michael Flynn.
At the same time, Comey reiterated before the Senate Intelligence Committee his written testimony, released Wednesday, that he had volunteered to Trump he was not a subject of the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election campaign. He also testified that Trump never asked him to stop the counterintelligence investigation.
Comey’s testimony Thursday was his first public appearance since his May 9 firing and one of the most widely anticipated hearings in recent memory. Long lines formed as people sought one of the limited number of seats in the hearing room.
Here are the main takeaways:
Trump was frustrated that Comey would not confirm in public what he was saying privately. Comey acknowledged that he told Trump on three separate occasions — the first time unprompted — that he was not under investigation. He testified that he briefed congressional leaders on Americans who were the subjects of the counterintelligence investigation.
“And we specifically said the president is not one of those Americans,” he said.
Comey confirmed this still was the case at the time of his dismissal.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) alluded to the frustration that Trump must have felt.
“Do you think it’s unreasonable for them to want the FBI director to publicly announce that so that this cloud over his administration could be publicly removed?” he asked.
Responded Comey: “I think that’s a reasonable point of view. The concern, obviously, would be is if that boomerang comes back, it’s going to be a very big deal, because there will be a duty to correct.”
Sen Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) questioned why that fact remained a secret for so long.
“You know this investigation is full of leaks left and right. I mean we’ve learned more from the newspapers sometimes than we do from our open hearings, for sure,” Rubio said. “You ever wonder why of all things in this investigation, the only thing that’s never been leaked is the fact that the president is not personally under investigation despite the fact that both Democrats and Republicans and leadership of Congress knew that and have known that for weeks?”
Comey responded that information given to the eight congressional leaders authorized for top-secret briefings generally is tightly held.
Comey tried to manipulate the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel. For the first time, Comey explained how the contents of the memos he wrote documenting his interactions with Trump ended up on the front page of The New York Times.
Comey testified that he gave his memos to a friend who teaches at Columbia University’s law school and asked him to get them out in the public. And Comey made clear his motivation was not just to promote his side of the story.
“I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel,” he said.
In fact, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein did appoint a special counsel. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller now has control of the Russia investigation.
Two senators, Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.), both asked Comey to ask his friend to turn over the notes to the committee. Comey said he would.
Comey had great concerns about Trump’s conduct but kept those concerns to himself and a small circle of people at the FBI. Comey said that he interpreted Trump’s request that Comey could see his “way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go” as more than a request.
“I took it as a direction … I didn’t obey that, but that’s how I took it,” he said.
Comey acknowledged, though, that it was not an explicit order.
“Not in his words, no,” he said.
Asked again by Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), Comey said, “Again, those words are not an order.”
Comey also said he does not know of anyone being charged with obstruction of justice for expressing a desire for an outcome.
He said he does not know why he did not respond to Trump’s request in a stronger way by insisting that the conversation was inappropriate.
“Maybe if I were stronger, I would have,” he said. “I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in.”
Comey didn’t accept the initial explanation of his firing. Comey testified that he recognized that the president has the authority to fire the FBI director for any reason or no reason at all.
“But then the explanations, the shifting explanations, confused me and increasingly concerned me,” he said. “They confused me because the president and I had multiple conversations about my job and he had repeatedly told me I was doing a great job and had hoped I would stay.”
Comey said he also was upset that the administration “then chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI.”
About the White House description of the FBI being in disarray, he said, “Those were lies, plain and simple.”
Comey said it was for Mueller, not him, to conclude whether Trump’s request regarding Flynn amounts to obstruction.
Comey was troubled by the conduct of then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch during the investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information. Comey said that Lynch directed him to call the Clinton probe a “matter” and not an investigation. He said he was troubled when the Clinton campaign for president started using that same language.
“It gave the impression that the attorney general was looking to align the way we talked about our work with the way a political campaign was describing the same activity, which was inaccurate,” he said. “We had a criminal investigation open … That gave me a queasy feeling.”
That, Comey said, is one of the reasons he decided to call a news conference in July announcing that he was recommending no charges in the case. That news conference broke with Justice Department protocol.