Former FBI Director James Comey spent three hours under oath Thursday explaining his private interactions with Donald Trump in the months before he was fired. While he declined to talk about details involving the federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, he did not hold back when it came to giving information about his tense and uncomfortable relationship with President Trump.
During the hearing, Comey accused Trump of lying, of making disturbing and shocking requests, and felt that Trump was trying to influence the FBI’s investigation of then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. He did not, however, go as far as saying that Trump had tried to obstruct the investigation. Comey’s comments displayed a clear effort to defend himself — and the FBI — against potential accusations that the agency acted out of line.
Here are the seven most intriguing interactions and statements from his hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee:
1) Comey says the president lied “plain and simple”
Comey began the hearing with strong accusations against Trump, asserting that the president lied and defamed Comey and the FBI after firing him. He also said he was concerned that Trump told Russian officials that his firing would relieve pressure over the Russia investigation.
“That didn't make any sense to me, and although the law requires no reason at all to fire an FBI director, 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, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple,” he said.
These comments, so early in the hearing, reveal how mad Comey was (and still is) about getting fired and shows his concern about the public perception of the agency. He also went to great lengths to describe his confusion about why exactly he was fired.
“[The explanations] confused me because the president and I had had multiple conversations about my job, both before and after he took office,” Comey said. “And he had repeatedly told me I was doing a good job and he hoped I would stay. ... So it confused me when I saw on television the president saying that he actually fired me because of the Russian investigation and learned again from the media that he was telling privately other parties that my firing had relieved great pressure on the Russian investigation. I was also confused by the initial explanation that was offered publicly that I was fired because of the decision I had made during the election year.”
2) Comey thought Trump “might lie” about their meetings
One thing that has become clear in media reports is that Comey wrote meticulous memos about each private interaction he had with Trump. During the hearing, Comey explained why he started writing memos after his first meeting with then-President-elect Trump in January at Trump Tower in New York. Comey said he thought the documents would protect him in case Trump later lied about those meetings. The following interactions show how little confidence Comey had in Trump’s integrity.
Here is what he said during an exchange with Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the committee:
WARNER: Now, you've had extensive experience at the Department of Justice and at the FBI. You've worked under presidents of both parties. What was [it] about that meeting that led you to determine that you needed to start putting down a written record?
COMEY: A combination of things. I think the circumstances, the subject matter, and the person I was interacting with. Circumstances, first: I was alone with the president of the United States, or the president-elect, soon to be president. The subject matter I was talking about — matters that touch on the FBI's core responsibility, and that relate to the president, president-elect personally. And then the nature of the person: I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it important to document. That combination of things I had never experienced before, but had led me to believe I got to write it down and write it down in a very detailed way.
Later in the hearing, Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, pressed Comey again on the issue:
COLLINS: Okay. You mentioned that from your very first meeting with the president you decided to write a memo memorializing the conversation. What was it about that very first meeting that made you write a memo when you have not done that with two previous presidents?
COMEY: As I said, a combination of things. A gut feeling is an important overlay, but the circumstances — that I was alone, the subject matter, and the nature of the person I was interacting with, and my read of that person. Yeah, and really just a gut feel, laying on top of all of that, that this is going to be important to protect this organization.
3) Comey felt Trump wanted to influence the investigation
A key moment of the hearing revolved around whether or not Trump had asked Comey to drop the federal investigation into his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. In his testimony, Comey made clear that Trump had asked him to “let it go.”
Sen. James Risch, a Republican from Idaho, wanted to clarify that Trump did not order him to let it go. This is crucial because it’s an essential element in the argument that Trump committed obstruction of justice. Comey said he felt that Trump wanted him to let it go.
RISCH: He did not direct you to let it go?
COMEY: Not in his words, no.
RISCH: He did not order you to let it go?
COMEY: Again, those words are not an order.
RISCH: He said, I hope. Now, like me, you probably did hundreds of cases, maybe thousands of cases, charging people with criminal offenses and, of course, you have knowledge of the thousands of cases out there where people have been charged. Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where they said or thought they hoped for an outcome?
COMEY: I don't know well enough to answer. The reason I keep saying his words is I took it as a direction.
COMEY: 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.
4) But was it an obstruction of justice?
The previous interaction raises a logical next question: Did Comey believe that Trump’s request added up to the obstruction of justice?
Comey wasn’t willing to give his personal opinion, but he made it clear that he found the president’s actions troubling and deferred to a special prosecutor for a final decision.
Richard Burr, the Republican chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked the former FBI director about a conversation in which Donald Trump asked Comey to lay off former National Security Adviser Flynn.
BURR: Do you sense that the president was trying to obstruct justice or just seek for a way for Mike Flynn to save face, given he had already been fired?
COMEY: 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, but that's a conclusion I'm sure the special counsel will work towards to find out the intention and whether that's an offense.
Later Sen. Joe Manchin pressed him again on the subject:
MANCHIN: Do you believe this will rise to the obstruction of justice?
COMEY: I don't know. That's Bob Mueller's job to sort that out.
5) “Lordy, I hope there are tapes”
When it comes to uncovering exactly what happened during Comey and Trump’s meeting, it is Comey’s word against Trump’s. So Comey said he was glad when Trump tweeted after Comey’s firing and suggested he had taped their conversations.
He brought that up during an exchange with Sen. Diane Feinstein, a California Democrat, who wanted to know why Comey didn’t tell Trump that his behavior was inappropriate:
FEINSTEIN: Now, here's the question: You're big. You're strong. I know the Oval Office, and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn't you stop and say, “Mr. President, this is wrong”? There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn't you stop and say, “Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you”?
COMEY: It's a great question. Maybe if I were stronger, I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in. The only thing I could think to say, because I was playing in my mind — because I could remember every word he said — I was playing in my mind, what should my response be? That's why I very carefully chose the words.
Look, I've seen the tweet about tapes. Lordy, I hope there are tapes. I remember saying, I agree [Flynn] is a good guy, as a way of saying, “I'm not agreeing with what you asked me to do.” Again, maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance. That's how conducted myself. I hope I'll never have another opportunity. Maybe if I did it again, I would do it better.
6) Comey says unequivocally that Russia interfered in the election
Some of Comey’s harshest criticism during the hearing was directed at the Russian government, who Comey says directly meddled in the US election. It was the strongest statement yet from a public official regarding accusations that the Kremlin had tried to influence the outcome of the presidential election.
Here is what Comey said during an exchange with Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico:
HEINRICH: The president has repeatedly talked about the Russian investigation into the — or Russia's involvement in the US election cycle as a hoax and fake news. Can you talk a little bit about what you saw as FBI director and, obviously, only the parts that you can share in this setting that demonstrate how serious this action actually was and why there was an investigation in the first place?
COMEY: Yes, sir. There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever. The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. It was an active, measured campaign driven from the top of that government. There is no fuzz on that.
It is a high confidence judgment of the entire intelligence community and the members of this committee have seen the intelligence. It's not a close call. That happened. That's about as unfake as you can possibly get. It is very, very serious, which is why it's so refreshing to see a bipartisan focus on that. This is about America, not about a particular party.
HEINRICH: That is a hostile act by the Russian government against this country?
COMEY: Yes, sir.
7) Comey hints that the attorney general was involved in his firing
During the hearing, Comey suggested that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was, in some way, involved in his firing, despite Sessions recusing himself from all matters regarding the Russia investigation. Yet Comey’s firing was, according to Trump, related to his handling of the Russia investigation.
These revelations came to light during an exchange with Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon.
WYDEN: Let me turn to the attorney general. In your statement, you said that you and the FBI leadership team decided not to discuss the president's actions with Attorney General Sessions, even though he had not recused himself. What was it about the attorney general's interactions with the Russians or his behavior with regard to the investigation that would have led the entire leadership of the FBI to make this decision?
COMEY: Our judgment, as I recall, is that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can't discuss in an opening setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic. So we were convinced — in fact, I think we'd already heard that the career people were recommending that he recuse himself, that he was not going to be in contact with Russia-related matters much longer. That turned out to be the case.
WYDEN: How would you characterize Attorney General Sessions's adherence to his recusal? In particular, with regard to his involvement in your firing, which the president has acknowledged was because of the Russian investigation.
COMEY: That's a question I can't answer. I think it is a reasonable question. If, as the president said, I was fired because of the Russian investigation, why was the attorney general involved in that chain? I don't know. So, I don't have an answer for the question.