WASHINGTON — Former FBI Director James Comey on Thursday raised questions about President Donald Trump’s truthfulness and said the president fired him to change the course of the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election.
In sworn testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey complained that after Trump dismissed him on May 9, his administration “defamed” him and the FBI by saying the bureau was in “disarray,” was “poorly led” and its agents had lost confidence in Comey.
“Those were lies, plain and simple,” Comey said in his brief opening statement at a hearing before a national television audience and a packed Senate hearing room.
Asked why Trump had fired him, Comey said he took the president at his word when he said in a television interview that he had “this Russia thing” on his mind, something he called “a made-up story,” when he decided to do it.
“I was fired because of the Russia investigation, something about the way I was conducting it, the president felt, created pressure on him that he wanted to relieve,” Comey said. “I was fired in some way to change, or the endeavor was to change, the way the Russia investigation was being conducted.”
Comey added, “That is a very big deal, and not just because it involves me.” And he stressed that the Russian election interference the FBI has been investigating since last summer is a fact, “as unfake news as you can get.”
Armed with detailed notes he took after each private conversation he had with Trump — notes he has now turned over to the special counsel — and years of navigating Washington, Comey revealed he had arranged for the story to be made public to force an independent investigation.
Comey said he asked his friend Daniel Richman at Columbia Law School to share his notes about a Feb. 14 Oval Office meeting in which he understood Trump to be asking him to drop the FBI probe of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for making false statements about his conversations with a Russian ambassador in December.
“My judgment was, I need to get that out into the public square,” Comey said. “I asked him to because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel.”
Two days later, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed attorney Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, to be special counsel to take over the investigation.
Comey set the stage for Thursday’s hearing by releasing a day earlier his seven-page written statement that offered vividly detailed stories of five of his nine one-on-one conversations with Trump during the first four months of this year.
In it, Comey said Trump sought a pledge of loyalty, told Comey he hoped he would drop the Flynn investigation, and asked Comey in two phone calls to “lift the cloud” of the Russia probe over his administration by saying publicly Trump was not a target of an FBI investigation.
After the hearing, Trump’s private attorney Marc Kasowitz issued a statement denying that Trump sought to stop any investigations and said he never told Comey “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
He also accused Comey of leaking memos of “privileged conversations” with the president. But Kasowitz also repeated the president feels “completely vindicated” by Comey’s confirmation he had told Trump on three occasions he is not the target of an FBI investigation.
In the nearly three-hour hearing, Comey repeatedly spoke of his unease with Trump’s requests to talk with him alone — which Comey said he rarely had done with previous presidents — and questioned whether he could trust the president to be truthful about their interactions.
From the very first meeting with Trump, on Jan. 6 at Trump Tower, to brief him about an unverified dossier that accused him of salacious behavior — which Trump vehemently denied — Comey said he decided to take detailed notes.
“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meetings, so I thought it really important to document,” Comey said. “I knew there might come a day when I might need a record of what happened not only to defend myself but to protect the FBI.”
Comey recalled he had seen Trump’s tweet — “James Comey better hope there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations” — and told the committee, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the committee chairman, began the hearing by asking Comey if Trump’s plea for him to let go of a probe of Flynn and requests that Comey “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigation had any effect on the FBI’s operations.
No, Comey said.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Comey’s statement shows Trump asked for three things: loyalty, easing off the Flynn probe and making public that Trump was not a target of an FBI investigation. He asked why Comey did not comply with that last request.
Comey said he and his senior staff wrestled with that question.
“There were two primary concerns. One was it creates a duty to correct, which I’ve lived before,” he said. “Second, it’s a slippery slope, because if we say the president and vice president aren’t under investigation, what’s the principled basis for stopping” with them?
Rubio also asked Comey about his description of a March 30 phone call in which Trump said that if there were some “satellite” associates of the president who did something wrong it would be good to find that out. Comey said, “That’s what he said.”
Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) pressed Comey to explain why he thought Trump was ordering him to back off the investigation of Flynn, an issue that has led some Democrats to charge the president committed the crime of obstructing justice.
Risch read Comey’s account of Trump’s words in making the request: “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.” Then Risch pointed out that Trump had not used the word “order” to direct Comey.
“The reason I keep saying his words is I took it as a direction,” Comey said. “I mean, this is a president of the United States with me alone saying I hope this. I took it as, ‘This is what he wants me to do.’ I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.”
Comey also said it was unusual for Trump to clear the room of five other top law enforcement and intelligence officials to meet with him privately.
“My impression was something big is about to happen,” Comey said. “My sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn’t be leaving, which is why he was lingering. And I don’t know Mr. [Jared] Kushner well, but I think he picked up on the same thing.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) asked Comey, “Do you believe this will rise to obstruction of justice?”
“I don’t know,” Comey replied. Then, referring to the special counsel, he said, “That’s Bob Mueller’s job to sort that out.”