Over nearly three hours of testimony, Comey grimly recounted the events that he said showed the president sought to redirect the Russia probe away from his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and get the FBI to publicly distance the president himself from the probe.
Comey declined to say whether he thought the president had obstructed justice, saying that was a determination to be made by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III. But his detailed account of private talks in which Trump repeatedly brought up the Russia matter, and asked him to issue public statements about it or drop the probe into Flynn, left no doubt in Comey’s mind why he was canned.
“I know I was fired because something about the way I was conducting the Russia investigation was putting pressure on [Trump],” Comey said.
In response to Comey’s testimony, Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, released a statement saying the president “never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone.”
Kasowitz also accused Comey of trying to “undermine this administration with selective and illegal leaks of classified information and privileged communications.”
A former federal prosecutor, Comey testified that he took detailed notes of his private talks with the president — a departure from his practice with Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama. Comey said he did so because he was “honestly concerned” that the president might lie about what was said in their meetings. He said the two spoke in private a total of nine times before Comey was fired.
Comey’s written account of those discussions, made public Wednesday, has fueled the debate over whether the president may have attempted to obstruct justice by pressuring the FBI director about a sensitive investigation.
“This is not a witch hunt. This is not fake news,’’ said the senior Democrat on the panel, Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.). “This is an effort to protect our country from a new threat that quite frankly will not go away anytime soon.’’
The hearing, broadcast nationally by at least 12 television networks, was held in a cavernous space with hundreds of seats to accommodate the intense interest. Some lawmakers not on the committee decided to sit in the audience.
Inside the hearing room, people audibly groaned or gasped when Comey said he had “no doubt” that Russian government officials were behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee last year.
Anticipation for the hearing stretched far beyond Capitol Hill. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) walked into the hearing with a binder that included 20 of more than 600 questions submitted to him by constituents.
Comey began his testimony by saying he became “confused and increasingly concerned” about the public explanations by White House officials for his firing on May 9, particularly after the president said he was thinking about the Russia investigation when he decided to fire him.
He wasted little time repudiating White House statements that he was fired in part because of low morale among FBI employees who supposedly had soured on his leadership.
“The administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led,” Comey said. “Those were lies, plain and simple. And I’m so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them, and I’m so sorry the American people were told them.”
In his written testimony released Wednesday, Comey described being summoned to a private dinner at the White House in January with the president, who told him: “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
Comey said he “didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.”
Comey said the conversation, in which Trump asked whether Comey intended to stay on as FBI director, despite three prior discussions in which Comey had said he would, raised concerns in his mind.
“My common sense told me what’s going on here is he’s looking to get something in exchange for granting my request to stay in the job,” Comey testified.
Comey described his state of mind as he tried to navigate a series of tense conversations with the president about the investigation into possible coordination between Trump associates and Russian operatives.
Comey made clear he felt the discussions were problematic and improper, in that Trump repeatedly pressed him about specific investigations that involved people close to the president.
On Feb. 13, Flynn was forced to resign as national security adviser for misleading Vice President Pence about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. At the end of 2016, the FBI investigation into Flynn wasn’t going anywhere, but then on Dec. 29, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia, and Flynn had a phone conversation with Kislyak about those sanctions, according to U.S. officials briefed on the probe.
At the time Flynn was fired, he was being investigated for possibly lying about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, Comey said.
The day after Flynn’s ouster, a number of senior officials met the president in the Oval Office to discuss terrorism. At the end of the meeting, according to Comey, Trump asked everyone to leave but Comey.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions lingered until the president told him to leave, too, Comey said.
“My sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn’t be leaving, which is why he was lingering,’’ Comey said. “I knew something was about to happen which I should pay very close attention to.”
Once they were alone, the president told Comey he hoped he could let go of the investigation into Flynn.
“When it comes from the president, I took it as a direction,” Comey said. He said he was shocked and concerned about the president’s request, but decided not to tell Sessions about it because he expected the attorney general would soon recuse himself from the Russia probe, which he eventually did.
After the meeting with Trump, Comey said he asked Sessions to prevent him from being left alone again in a room with the president. “His body language gave me the sense of, ‘What am I going to do?’ ” Comey said.
His account made clear that his relationship with Trump was fraught from their very first meeting, which occurred before the inauguration, when he told the president-elect that a dossier of unsubstantiated allegations against him had been circulating around Washington.
“I didn’t want him thinking that I was briefing him on this to sort of hang it over him in some way,” Comey said. “He needed to know this was being said, but I was very keen to not leave him with the impression that the bureau was trying to do something to him.”
Comey acknowledged, as the president has claimed, that he repeatedly told Trump that he was not personally under investigation. But he also said that in private meetings and one-on-one phone calls, the president repeatedly asked him to say publicly that he was not personally under investigation — something Comey did not want to do.
After firing Comey, the president tweeted a suggestion that there could be tapes of their private talks.
“The president tweeted on Friday after I got fired that I’d better hope there are not tapes,” Comey said. That made the ex-FBI director think any such tapes would back up his account of Trump’s improper statements, so he said he asked a friend of his to share with a reporter a memo he had written about the February conversation.
“I thought it might prompt the appointment of a special counsel,” Comey said.
Asked by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) why he felt he had the authority to do that, Comey replied: “As a private citizen, I felt free to share that. I thought it was very important to get it out.”
The friend is Daniel Richman, a law professor and a former federal prosecutor who confirmed his role but declined further comment. The reporter is Michael Schmidt of the New York Times, who declined to comment.
A special counsel was appointed — Mueller, who is a former colleague of Comey’s — and Comey has provided him with his memos, he testified Thursday.
Comey said he still has no idea whether the president actually has tapes of their conversations, but he said: “I hope there are, and I will consent to the release of them. . . . The president surely knows whether he taped me, and if he did, my feelings aren’t hurt.”
The former director also divulged new details of his concerns about then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch’s handling of the probe into Hillary Clinton’s private email server during the Obama administration. While the case was ongoing, Lynch asked him to refer to the Clinton email probe as a “matter,” rather than an “investigation.”
Comey said he was concerned by Lynch’s instruction because the wording too closely tracked how the Clinton campaign was trying to describe the FBI investigation.
The former FBI director said he thought that wording “looked silly” and “gave the impression that the attorney general was looking to align the way we talked about our work with the way the campaign” talked about it. “That was inaccurate,” he said. “That gave me a queasy feeling.”
When it was over, Burr and Warner, the two senior members of the committee, walked out to greet reporters camped in the hallway outside. With at least a dozen cameras trained on them, the senators stood grimly and said they would take no questions.
“This is nowhere near the end of the investigation,” Burr said.