Ousted FBI chief James Comey called Donald Trump’s shifting explanations for firing him “lies, plain and simple” and said he wrote detailed memos of their conversations because he feared the president would paint a false picture of their encounters.
Comey began the practice immediately after meeting Trump for the first time on Jan. 6 in New York, two weeks before his inauguration. He told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday that he documented their exchanges partly because of “the nature of the person.”
“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it was important to document it,” Comey said during more than 2 1/2 hours of testimony. The administration fired back, with spokeswoman Sarah Sanders telling reporters at the White House, “The president is not a liar.”
Comey spoke in his first public appearance since Trump dismissed him May 9, following the release on Wednesday of prepared remarks detailing nine one-on-one conversations the two men had from January to April. Those interactions included, Comey said, Trump’s insistence on “loyalty,” as well as his request that the FBI chief back off a probe of fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The Flynn inquiry was tied to a broader investigation about Russia’s role in the 2016 election and whether anyone close to Trump colluded in the Russian meddling.
Lawmakers are scrutinizing Comey’s account to determine whether Trump crossed any legal boundaries. Comey, 56, declined to say whether the president’s request to end the Flynn probe constituted obstruction of justice, saying he would leave a determination about that to Robert Mueller, another former FBI chief who is now special counsel leading the Russia probe and is in possession of Comey’s memos.
While Comey told senators he found the discussion with Trump “a very disturbing thing,” he added that “I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct.” He later added, “that’s Bob Mueller’s job to sort that out.”
But, in a line that will fuel debate about Trump’s intentions, Comey said he interpreted the request on Flynn to be “direction” on what he should do.
“This is the president of the United States with me alone,” Comey said.
In a lighter moment, Comey referred to Trump’s apparent warning on Twitter that there could be recordings of their conversations that would undercut the former FBI chief’s account of events.
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey said. He later said Trump’s comment prompted him to ask an acquaintance to leak portions of the memos he prepared on his conversations with the president in an effort to spur the appointment of a special counsel.
Comey also told the committee that he felt Trump’s decision to fire him was confusing. And he added that he was angered in particular by Trump’s comments in an interview with NBC, in which he said he fired Comey because of the Russia probe and because “the FBI was in turmoil.”
“He had repeatedly told me I was doing a great job and hoped I would stay,” Comey said. But after he was fired, he said “the administration chose to defame me” as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
According to his prepared remarks, Comey detailed one encounter over dinner at the White House in January, when Trump told the nation’s top law enforcement officer, “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.”
Comey said an awkward silence followed. When Trump returned to the issue of loyalty later in the meal, Comey said he could offer “honesty.”
The following month, a day after Flynn was dismissed, Comey said Trump pressed him to ease up on the inquiry into his former aide. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said, according to Comey. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Comey said he responded that Flynn “is a good guy,” but added that “I did not say I would ‘let this go.”’ In the end, though, Comey said he believes he was fired because “something about the way I was conducting the Russia investigation” was putting pressure on Trump.
House Speaker Paul Ryan defended the president, telling reporters Thursday that Trump is “new at this,” adding, “He’s new to government, so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, the FBI and the White House.”
Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina said lawmakers want to know if Trump’s apparent efforts to weigh in on the investigation in any way affected the probe.
“We will establish the facts separate from rampant speculation and lay them out before the American people to make their own judgment,” Burr said. “Today is your opportunity to set the record straight.”
Highlighting the degree of interest in the hearing, Washington bars opened hours early to serve patrons wanting to spend the day watching the back and forth. Hundreds of people waited in line outside the full hearing room and among those who got in was former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who was also fired by Trump.
At the White House, spokeswoman Sanders said it was “a regular Thursday,” adding that “we’re carrying on.” She said she didn’t know if Trump watched the hearing, saying he spent most of his morning meeting with his top foreign policy advisers. While the hearing was still under way, Trump spoke at a conference of evangelical Christians at a Washington hotel.
“We’re under siege, you understand that,” Trump told the supportive audience. “But we will come out bigger and better and stronger than ever.”
After the open hearing ended, Comey was scheduled to testify to the Senate panel in a closed-door session, at which sensitive or classified information can be discussed.
Trump still disputes key aspects of Comey’s account, according to a person close to the president’s outside legal team. Trump did not say that he wanted Comey’s loyalty and did not ask Comey to drop the Flynn case, the person said. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity, didn’t immediately clarify whether Trump is saying that the conversations didn’t happen, or that Comey mischaracterized the president’s intentions.
On Wednesday, after Comey’s prepared remarks were published, Marc Kasowitz, a lawyer representing the president in the Russia investigation says the president “feels completely and totally vindicated” by the testimony. “The President is pleased that Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the President was not under investigation in any Russian probe,” Kasowitz said.
Asked at the hearing why Comey’s assertions should be believed over White House denials, Comey cited Trump’s insistence on meeting with him alone, at one point asking other top officials including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and son-in-law Jared Kushner to leave the room.
“A really significant fact to me is, so why did he kick everyone out of the Oval Office?” Comey said. “That, to me as an investigator, is a very significant fact.”
But Senator Mark Warner, the committee’s top Democrat, said Comey’s prepared testimony painted a damning portrait of Trump.
“Think about it: the President of the United States asking the FBI Director to drop an ongoing investigation,” Warner said.