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James Comey’s dramatic prepared testimony about President Trump, explained

The fired FBI director was troubled enough to document several encounters with the president in great detail.

Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Fired FBI Director James Comey plans to give dramatic testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday, describing a series of encounters with President Trump that troubled him enough to lead him to document them in great detail.

“I felt compelled to document my first conversation with the President-Elect in a memo. To ensure accuracy, I began to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting,” Comey wrote in prepared testimony released Wednesday. “Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward.”

He went on to note this was highly unusual — he’d never done so with President Obama — and that he ended up having far more one-on-one interactions with Trump than he ever did with Obama, signaling that something about those interactions compelled him to take detailed notes.

The most significant revelation in Comey’s detailed opening statement is that he will confirm on the record that Trump once tried to get him to drop the FBI investigation into fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — an act that raises serious questions about obstruction of justice.

Furthermore, Comey will testify about a pair of phone calls in which President Trump complained to him about the FBI’s investigation into his associates’ ties to Russia, calling it a “cloud” looming over his presidency, and repeatedly asked Comey to say publicly that Trump wasn’t under investigation.

Importantly, though, Comey’s testimony also confirms that he privately told the president three times that he wasn’t personally under investigation (something Trump has been claiming). That’s important because viewed in that context, Trump isn’t asking Comey to lie to or mislead the public — he’s simply asking him to restate what Comey himself was saying in private.

Finally, the memo chronicles a series of at best awkward and at worst highly inappropriate interactions between Trump and Comey, and some odd statements the president allegedly made to Comey in private.

The big one: Comey will testify that Trump asked him to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, calling it “very concerning”

Comey will testify at some length about a February 14, 2017, interaction with the president in the Oval Office — the interaction that raises the most serious questions about whether Trump was trying to obstruct justice. (We had first heard about this in an anonymously sourced story by the New York Times’s Michael Schmidt a few weeks ago.)

Comey will say that the morning after Flynn was fired as national security adviser, he attended an Oval Office briefing of the president with a large group of advisers, including Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, and others.

At the end of the briefing, Comey will say, Trump cleared the room — including directly telling Kushner to leave — so he could speak with Comey alone. As soon as the door closed, Comey will say, the president told him, “I want to talk about Mike Flynn.”

Trump’s deliberate clearing of the room could be important here in establishing his intent — it certainly seems to signal that he didn’t want anyone else to hear what he was telling Comey.

According to Comey, Trump then said that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong in talking to the Russians, but that he had misled Vice President Pence about what he told Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition, so he had to fire him.

Trump then complained about leaks, before bringing up Flynn again. “He is a good guy and has been through a lot,” Trump said, according to Comey. “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.” Comey replies that his only reply was, “He is a good guy.”

Comey will testify that he “understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December” — not requesting that the Russia probe be dropped entirely.

Still, Comey will say, he found the interaction “very concerning,” documented it in a memo, and told senior leadership at the FBI. “The FBI leadership team agreed with me that it was important not to infect the investigative team with the President’s request, which we did not intend to abide,” Comey will say.

Trump also complained about the Russia investigation to Comey — but mostly about why Comey wouldn’t confirm his private assurances that he wasn’t personally under investigation

Comey will also offer added detail about a pair of presidential phone calls in which he will say Trump complained that the Russia investigation was hurting him politically, and asked Comey to publicly confirm that he wasn’t personally under investigation.

But importantly, Comey will also confirm that he did make that private assurance to Trump — that he wasn’t under investigation — at least three times. This is something Trump himself asserted in his letter firing Comey, but that has been questioned by anonymous sources in the press.

First, let’s go through the times in which, according to Comey’s account, he told Trump that he wasn’t under investigation.

  1. Before Comey’s first meeting with President-elect Trump on January 6, he “discussed with the FBI’s leadership team whether I should be prepared to assure” Trump “that we were not investigating him personally.” Comey says they agreed that he should do so “if circumstances warranted.” And then, when he met Trump, he says he did indeed offer this assurance, without being prompted.
  2. During a one-on-one dinner between Comey and Trump on January 27, Trump brought up some “salacious” allegations about him and Russia (that had circulated in a dossier posted by BuzzFeed News earlier that month), and denied them. Comey claims Trump then said he was considering ordering Comey to investigate the matter just to prove his innocence, but Comey warned him that that could “create a narrative that we were investigating him personally, which we weren’t.”
  3. On March 30, when Trump called Comey to complain about the Russia investigation, Comey will say he “explained that we had briefed the leadership of Congress on exactly which individuals we were investigating and that we had told those Congressional leaders that we were not personally investigating President Trump. I reminded him I had previously told him that.”

Comey will testify that he had his reasons for not wanting to publicly state this, most notably that “it would create a duty to correct, should that change.” This may imply that Comey thought it was at least possible that the investigation could turn to Trump at some point.

But with this context, it is at least understandable why the president would feel extremely frustrated about Comey’s refusal to publicly confirm what he himself was saying in private.

All this sets the stage for the two presidential calls about the Russia investigation that Comey will testify about:

  • On March 30, Comey will say, Trump called him and complained the investigation was “a cloud” hurting his presidency, and asked what he could do to “lift the cloud.” Comey will say he then brought up the fact that Comey had previously told Trump he wasn’t under investigation, and Trump responded by saying, “We need to get that fact out.” After discussing a few other topics (which we’ll get into below), Trump then said again that “he hoped I could find a way to get out that he wasn’t being investigated,” per Comey.
  • On April 11, Comey will say, Trump called him again to follow up on this request. Comey responded by saying he passed his request to the deputy attorney general but hadn’t heard back. Trump then complained about “the cloud” again.

Note that Trump did not ask Comey to drop the Russia investigation during these calls. Nor did he ask Comey to mislead the public in any way. His repeated direct request was for Comey to confirm what Trump understood to be true — that he isn’t under investigation.

Comey will also describe several other interactions with Trump that he found inappropriate, odd, or troubling

Finally, Comey will go into detail about other things Trump did or said that may not rise to the level of putting the president in any legal jeopardy, but do seem to indicate that Trump seemed to have little respect or understanding of the FBI’s independence, or were troubling in other ways.

For one, Comey plans to confirm a report from the New York Times’s Michael Schmidt published soon after the FBI director’s firing that on January 27, Trump invited him for a private dinner and asked him for “loyalty.”

Comey will begin by testifying that Trump started the dinner “by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI Director, which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to.” He will say that he got the sense that the dinner was, “at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship.”

Then, per Comey, this happened:

At the end of the dinner, Comey will say, Trump returned to the subject again, eventually leading Comey to promise “honesty,” Trump to say he wants “honest loyalty,” and Comey to agree.

Then Comey will say that during the March 30 phone call from Trump, Trump insisted that he “had not been involved with hookers in Russia.” If true, fair enough — but Trump then went on to strike a remarkably different tone on the Russia investigation than he has in public:

This private admission from Trump that he thought it could be at least possible that some of his associates did something wrong here makes quite a contrast from the president’s public insistence that the Russia investigation is a total “hoax” and “fake news.”

By “satellite” associates, Trump is likely referring to some of the people who have been widely reported to be the subject of investigators’ interest — like Carter Page, the obscure pro-Russia businessman who somehow ended up a Trump campaign policy adviser, or Roger Stone, a longtime Trump political adviser who left the campaign in 2015 but later claimed to know that WikiLeaks was preparing incriminating releases about Hillary Clinton. Trump could also mean Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager for several months in 2016 but who hasn’t had an official role since he was fired that August.

Comey will say that Trump then cast aspersions on FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe’s impartiality — the Wall Street Journal reported last year that McCabe’s wife ran unsuccessfully for state office in Virginia last year, and that Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a longtime ally of the Clintons, raised money for her — but professed to be trusting Comey’s word that McCabe was honorable. (McCabe is currently the acting FBI director.)

Finally, in one more bit of oddness, we have this from the April 11 Trump-Comey call:

It is unclear what Trump meant when he told Comey, “We had that thing,” but perhaps he will be asked about it on Thursday.

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