Comey speaks: What you missed from his Senate testimony on Trump and the Russia probe
Questioned by lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the former FBI director accused the President of lying and warned Russia wasn't done meddling in the U.S. political process – but he stopped short of saying Trump committed obstruction. Here are the highlights
- Former FBI director James Comey was in Washington on Thursday to testify at the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is looking into connections between Russia and President Donald Trump’s top aides and campaign staff. It was the first time Mr. Comey has spoken publicly about the affair since Mr. Trump fired him last month.
- The public hearing concluded at 12:40 p.m., followed by a classified hearing.
- His full statement: Mr. Comey’s prepared remarks, published on the committee’s website Wednesday, allege Mr. Trump repeatedly tried to interfere in the FBI’s investigation of connections between his inner circle and Moscow.
- On the Russians: At the hearing, Mr. Comey strongly reaffirmed investigators’ conclusion that the Russians purposefully interfered in the 2016 election. “It’s about as un-fake as you can possibly get,” he said, in reference to Mr. Trump’s past assertions that the Russians’ involvement was “fake news.” He later added that this was part of a long-term strategy on Russia’s part: “They’re coming after America, which I hope we all love equally,” he said. “… They will be back.”
- On Trump: Asked on Thursday whether Mr. Trump had at any point asked him to stop the Russia investigation, Mr. Comey said no. He also said Mr. Trump hadn’t been under investigation himself.
- On Flynn: Mr. Comey said it wasn’t for him to say whether Mr. Trump had committed obstruction when he suggested he back off an investigation of his national security adviser, Michael Flynn: “I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct. I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning.” He also said that he interpreted the Flynn request as an order.
- What Trump said: During Thursday’s hearing, Mr. Trump was elsewhere in Washington speaking at a conference of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. But on Friday he came out swinging against the former FBI director, writing on Twitter that it was a “complete vindication” and accusing Mr. Comey of being a “leaker.”
- What Trump’s people said: A White House spokeswoman, asked by reporters about Mr. Comey’s testimony that he was concerned Mr. Trump would lie, said that he wasn’t a liar, adding that Mr. Trump is pleased with Mr. Comey’s acknowledgement that the President was not under investigation. Mr. Trump’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz said Mr. Comey’s testimony showed Mr. Trump had not blocked the FBI probe.
What Comey said
The Globe's Adrian Morrow livetweeted Thursday's proceedings in Washington. Here are his five main takeaways from what Mr. Comey told the committee.
1. 'Those were lies, plain and simple'
The most emotional moment in James Comey's testimony came in his opening remarks. His voice quavering, he blasted the Trump administration for claiming he was fired because the FBI was in "disarray." It wasn't the only time Mr. Comey raised Donald Trump's penchant for false statements: A few minutes later, when explaining why he wrote memos of his meetings with the President, Mr. Comey said it was partly because he was "concerned" Mr. Trump "might lie" about their discussions. While the President's fondness for "alternative facts" has been a dominant theme of his political career, few people in Washington have been willing to flatly accuse him of lying. Hearing that word from a former FBI director describing a sitting President is an extraordinary moment.
2. 'The Russia investigation was in some way putting pressure on him, in some way irritating him, and he decided to fire me because of that'
Mr. Comey said he has no doubt why the President turfed him. He pointed out that Mr. Trump himself seemed to admit as much two days after the firing: In an NBC interview, Mr. Trump – unprompted – said "this Russia thing" was on his mind when he ousted Mr. Comey.
3. 'Lordy, I hope there are tapes'
After reports of Mr. Comey's meetings with Mr. Trump appeared in the media last month, the President warned on Twitter that Mr. Comey "better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!" Mr. Comey called the President's bluff on Thursday, saying he was confident any recording would back Mr. Comey's version of events. Later, he was even more direct, telling Mr. Trump to "release all of the tapes." If, of course, they exist.
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
4. 'Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?'
Mr. Comey said Mr. Trump never explicitly ordered him to curtail the investigation. But the President's comments ("I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go") still made it clear Mr. Trump wanted Mr. Comey to back off on Russia. Mr. Comey compared it to Henry II's famous lament in 1170: The King didn't directly tell anyone to kill Thomas Becket, but his exhortation was enough to prompt his knights to act.
5. 'I worried it would be feeding seagulls at the beach'
The fired FBI director had a "close friend" – revealed to be Daniel Richman, a Columbia University law professor – leak the contents of Mr. Comey's Trump memos to the media. The goal was to get the government to call in a special prosecutor for the Russia probe to remove the possibility of the administration meddling. Asked why he used an intermediary with reporters, rather than doing it himself, Mr. Comey reached for an avian metaphor. As it was, Mr. Comey and his wife had to leave town to avoid the pack of media camped outside their house; he had no desire to encourage the feeding frenzy any further.
What Comey wrote down
Testifying before the Senate committee under oath, Mr. Comey said he kept records of all or nearly all his encounters with Mr. Trump, because "I knew that there might come a day when I need a record of what happened" to defend his reputation and the FBI's, something he said he hadn't felt the need to do under the Barack Obama or George W. Bush administrations. "I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document."
In his seven pages of prepared remarks, which he elaborated on when questioned by the Senate committee, the former FBI director describes four months of awkward meetings with the President where he tried to influence the Russia investigation.
- Jan. 27: At a dinner meeting in the White House, the President told Mr. Comey: “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.” Mr. Comey demurred, though when pressed on the point again, he replied: “You will always get honesty from me.” Asked about the dinner at Thursday’s hearing, Mr. Comey said that, in his view, the President was trying to create a type of “patronage relationship.”
- Feb. 14: In the Oval Office, Mr. Trump tried to persuade Mr. Comey to back off an investigation of his recently fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Asked at Thursday’s hearing whether he thought this constituted obstruction of justice, Mr. Comey said it wasn’t for him to say.
- March 30: In a phone call, Mr. Trump asked him to “lift the cloud” over his administration by confirming he wasn’t personally under investigation in the Russia matter.
- April 11: In their final phone conversation before Mr. Comey’s firing, Mr. Trump asked what he was doing to “get out” the word that Mr. Trump was not under investigation. The president added: “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.”
Which Russia probe is this again?
The Senate intelligence committee's investigation is only one of four congressional inquiries into the Trump team's Russian connections. It is not to be confused with:
- The House intelligence committee probe
- The House oversight committee probe
- The Senate judiciary committee probe
Looming above all of these is the criminal investigation being conducted by the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation, led by special counsel Robert Mueller. This one could eventually result in criminal charges against Mr. Trump's people, though not likely against Mr. Trump himself.
Trump and Russia: How we got here
The Russian hackers: The spectre of Russian meddling in the 2016 election has haunted Mr. Trump since last summer, when it was revealed that hackers broke into the Democratic National Committee's servers and confidential e-mails from the Hillary Clinton campaign were leaked to whistleblower site Wikileaks. The FBI alleged Russians were behind the hacking, and U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia's President Vladimir Putin ordered the hackings to affect the election's outcome and weaken confidence in the U.S. political process. Mr. Comey defended those findings at his Senate hearing, saying he had no doubt that Russia was behind the hacking and that it was part of a long-term strategy that likely wouldn't stop with the 2016 election: "They'll be back," he warned.
The Russian connections: The revelations brought renewed scrutiny on the Trump campaign team's contact with Russian officials, including Moscow's U.S. ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, both before and after the election. During the Obama administration's last days, Mr. Kislyak was in contact with Mr. Trump's national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who discussed lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia, and with Mr. Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who proposed establishing a secret communications channel between the transition team and Moscow.
Trump's men in the hot seat: Mr. Trump fired Mr. Flynn in February, saying it was because he misled Vice-President Mike Pence about the nature of his conversations with Mr. Kislyak. Federal and congressional investigators are also looking at Mr. Kushner's contacts with Russian officials. Attorney-General Jeff Sessions – who also met with Mr. Kislyak, which he didn't mention in his Senate confirmation hearings – recused himself in March from his department's investigation into the Russia election meddling.
Why this matters: The prospect of the Trump team colluding with a foreign power while Barack Obama was still in office raises questions about what Mr. Trump knew, whether what he did was illegal and whether it could be grounds for impeachment.
The Comey saga so far
Mr. Comey's job as FBI director got uniquely complicated after the Trump-Russia investigation began last year.
The New York Times reported that, at one meeting with Mr. Trump seven days after his inauguration, the President asked for a pledge of personal loyalty, which Mr. Comey declined. On Feb. 14, the day after Mr. Flynn was fired, Mr. Trump asked Mr. Comey to back off the investigation of Mr. Flynn, according to a memo Mr. Comey wrote shortly after the meeting.
Mr. Comey's precarious relationship with the President came to a head on May 9, when Mr. Trump fired him as FBI director. Initially he said it was because the deputy attorney-general believed Mr. Comey had mishandled the Clinton e-mail investigation, but later, the President said he had already decided to fire Mr. Comey regardless of outside advice. Soon after, the contents of Mr. Comey's memo about the Feb. 14 meeting were revealed by The New York Times, leading law makers to question whether Mr. Trump had could be charged with obstruction of justice.
What did Trump think of Comey's big day?
Mr. Trump, who has previously described the Russia investigation as a "witch hunt" of his administration, steered clear of public comments when Mr. Comey was testifying. During the hearing the President was at the annual conference of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, where he said he and his supporters were being besieged, while not mentioning Mr. Comey by name:
We’re under siege...but we will come out bigger and better and stronger than ever. We will not back down from doing what is right ...we know how to fight and we will never give up.
But the next day, Mr. Trump said on Twitter that Mr. Comey was a "leaker" and that the proceedings vindicated him:
Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication...and WOW, Comey is a leaker!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 9, 2017
Great reporting by @foxandfriends and so many others. Thank you!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 9, 2017
The President's son Donald Trump Jr. didn't bother to wait a day, livetweeting Thursday's proceedings to defend his father:
Did I miss something or did Comey just say he asked a friend to leak information to the press? Is this a joke?— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) June 8, 2017
Following Mr. Comey's testimony, Mr. Trump's personal lawyer for the Russia matter, Marc Kasowitz, sharply criticized Mr. Comey for leaking what he called "privileged communications" between him and the President.
The White House had reportedly hoped to set up a "war room" stocked with Trump allies and top-flight lawyers to combat questions about Mr. Comey, the FBI and congressional investigations. But according to U.S. media reports, that effort has largely stalled, both because of a lack of decision making in the West Wing and concerns among some potential recruits about joining a White House under the cloud of investigation. Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign aide, shared his doubts about the Trump team's strategy with Associated Press earlier this week:
If there isn't a strategy, a coherent, effective one, this is really going to put us all behind the eight ball. We need to start fighting back. And so far, I don't see a lot of fight.
What happens next?
Justice Department investigation: Legal and political observers will be closely watching how Mr. Comey's testimony will help or hinder Mr. Mueller's investigation of the Trump-Russia connections.
FBI: Mr. Trump announced his nomination for the new FBI director: Christopher Wray, a former Justice Department official and lawyer who represented New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. His appointment would need to be confirmed in congressional hearings.
With reports from Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times News Service and Globe staff
U.S. POLITICS: MORE FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL