clock menu more-arrow no yes

James Comey’s troubling testimony about President Trump’s conduct, explained

It was an extraordinary critique of a sitting president’s behavior and character.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty

James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday was an extraordinary public critique of President Donald Trump’s conduct in office and character as a whole.

“I knew there might come a day when I would need a record of what had happened, not just to defend myself, but to defend the FBI and our integrity as an institution and the independence of our investigative function,” Comey said.

Speaking at length and in great detail, Comey laid out four main examples of behavior by the president he found either inappropriate or troubling.

First, Trump repeatedly asked for Comey’s “loyalty” at a private dinner in January, in what Comey interpreted as an effort to “get something in exchange” for keeping him in the FBI director post.

Second, on February 14, after Trump asked a set of other White House advisers to leave the room, he told Comey that he hoped he could “let” the matter of fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, then the subject of an FBI investigation into whether he’d made false statements about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, “go.” Comey says he “took it as a direction” from the president, not a request, but that he decided not to carry it out.

Third, Comey said that in a pair of phone calls, Trump asked him to publicly state what he was saying privately — that Trump wasn’t personally under investigation — as a way to lift what he called a “cloud” over his presidency. Again, Comey says he refused.

And fourth, Comey argued that Trump and his White House initially told “lies” about why he was fired and attempted to “defame” him. He also said he believed his firing was related to his handling of the Russia investigation, citing the president’s own words.

Now, Comey did not draw any conclusions about whether the president was attempting to obstruct justice, saying that that would be up to special counsel Robert Mueller to determine. And it is important to note that, per Comey, Trump never actually asked him to shut down the Russia investigation.

Furthermore, Comey straightforwardly confirmed that while he was in office, President Trump was not personally the subject of an FBI investigation. Comey also confirmed that he privately assured the president of this several times, which makes Trump’s desire to have Comey make the same statement publicly more understandable.

In a statement released afterward, Trump’s personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz denied that he ever asked Comey for loyalty or suggested that he stop investigating Flynn, essentially accusing the former FBI director of lying under oath, writing, “The president never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone.”

But the revelations didn’t stop with Trump. Comey tantalizingly suggested that there is more nonpublic information about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Russia that was bound to force his recusal from the probe. And he confirmed reports that President Obama’s Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s conduct around the Hillary Clinton email investigation seriously troubled him.

The big picture, though, is about the president. Comey has laid out a troubling pattern of the president’s refusal to respect or understand the traditional independence of the FBI director — a pattern that culminated in his own firing under a transparently bogus pretext.

The Flynn request: “I took it as a direction ... this is the president of the United States”

Before Comey’s firing, the incident that raises the most serious questions about whether the president was trying to obstruct justice occurred on February 14, 2017.

According to Comey, on this morning, Trump asked all other administration officials to leave the room after an Oval Office briefing so he could speak to the FBI director alone. The president then brought up Michael Flynn, who was fired as national security adviser the night before. Comey’s prepared testimony states:

The President then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, “He is a good guy and has been through a lot.” He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President.

He then said, “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.” I replied only that “he is a good guy.”

At the hearing, Comey was questioned extensively on how he interpreted this exchange. Some Republican senators, including Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), focused on the president’s words “I hope,” suggesting that he was merely vaguely expressing his wishes rather than making a direct instruction.

Comey didn’t buy it. “I took it as a direction,” he testified. “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.”

He later elaborated: “It rings in my ear as, well, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’” — making a reference to the tale of how King Henry II “suggested” to his advisers that someone kill Thomas Becket, which someone soon did.

The specific ask Comey thought Trump was making was for him to drop the FBI probe into Flynn for making false statements about his contacts with the Russian ambassador (including whether he made false statements to government investigators). He says he didn’t think Trump was referring to investigations into Flynn’s foreign lobbying, or the larger Russia probe. He continued:

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 there and whether that's an offense.

Now, Trump’s personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz released a statement Thursday afternoon claiming that “the President never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr,. Comey stop investigating anyone, including suggesting that Mr. Comey ‘let Flynn go.’” (Kasowitz does, however, confirm that the interaction happened, writing that Trump told Comey Flynn is a “good guy” who has “been through a lot.”)

But Comey was testifying under oath, and he says he documented the incident at the time in a memo and shared it with other FBI leaders. It does not seem particularly likely that he is lying — especially since President Trump has already brought up the possibility that tapes of their encounter exist, lying under oath would put him in serious legal jeopardy. (“Lordy,” Comey said, “I hope there are tapes.”)

A troubling pattern beyond the Flynn request

On its own, Trump’s alleged request about “letting Flynn go” — a seeming attempt to protect a former close aide from criminal charges by having the FBI drop an investigation — demonstrates a troubling lack of respect for the rule of law.

But Comey laid out a larger pattern in which the president made clear that he either does not care about or does not understand the traditional independence of law enforcement agencies like the FBI from the president.

Comey made clear that he was wary of Trump from the get-go and had a low opinion of his honesty and character. He testified that he felt compelled to meticulously document all his interactions with Trump because of his opinion of the president’s “nature,” saying that he was “honestly concerned that he might lie about” what went on in their meetings.

January 27 was the unusual dinner in which Trump repeatedly asked for Comey’s “loyalty.” In the context Comey provides, this looks even worse, because he says that Trump had already told him three times that he hoped he’d stay on as FBI director and Comey had confirmed he would. So he concluded that Trump wanted something from him.

The next Friday, I have dinner and the president begins by wanting to talk about my job. And so I'm sitting there thinking, wait a minute, three times we've already — you've already asked me to stay or talked about me staying.

My common sense, again I could be wrong, but 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.

(Trump’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz denies Trump asked for Comey’s loyalty, saying, "The President also never told Mr. Comey, 'I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,' in form or substance.")

Then there were Trump’s complaints to Comey about the FBI’s Russia investigation in two phone calls, on March 30 and April 11 — he called it a “cloud” hanging over his presidency, per Comey.

This could be interpreted as an attempt to vaguely pressure the FBI director, but Comey testified that Trump never asked him to shut down the Russia investigation as a whole and in fact said that if his “satellite” advisers did anything wrong, it would be good to find that out.

Trump’s specific ask in these calls, according to Comey, was that the FBI director publicly state that he wasn’t personally under investigation. Comey may have had his reasons for refusing to do this, but considering he confirms that he freely told the president in private, several times, this request seems understandable from Trump’s point of view. (He wanted Comey to put out true information.)

Still, all of these tensions, unfulfilled requests, and awkward interactions lead in the end to Comey’s firing under transparently false pretexts (the reasons given were that he was too tough on Hillary Clinton in the email case, and that the FBI was a mess with poor morale under his leadership). Comey minced no words here, calling these “lies” and saying the administration tried to “defame” him:

Although the law requires no reason at all to fire an FBI director, 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. That didn't make sense to me for whole bunch of reasons, including the time and all the water that had gone under the bridge since those hard decision that had to be made. 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 work force had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple.

The hearings also revealed newsworthy information about Loretta Lynch and Jeff Sessions

In addition to raising these troubling questions about President Trump’s conduct, Comey made news on two other matters — one involving his boss in the Obama administration, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, while the other involved his boss under Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

First, in defending his extraordinary public presentation about the Hillary Clinton email case in July 2016 — in which he criticized Clinton’s conduct but announced he wouldn’t charge her — Comey confirmed that he was troubled by Lynch’s behavior around the case.

What made up his mind, Comey said, was the infamous impromptu tarmac meeting between Bill Clinton and Lynch. But even before that, he continued, Lynch made a request of him that sounded odd:

The Clinton campaign at the time was using all kinds of euphemisms, “security review,” “matters,” things like that for what was going on. We were getting to a place where the attorney general [Lynch] and I were both going to testify and talk publicly about it

I wanted to know, was she going to authorize us to confirm we have an investigation? She said yes, but don't call it that, call it a “matter.”

I said why would I do that? She said, just call it a matter. ... That concerned me because that language tracked the way the campaign was talking about the FBI's work and that's concerning.

And elsewhere in the hearing, Comey made a statement about Jeff Sessions that raised eyebrows in Washington. In explaining why he didn’t brief Sessions on Trump’s request that he drop the Flynn investigation, Comey said:

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, Comey appears to be indicating that there’s more to the story of Jeff Sessions and Russia beyond the two encounters with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak (a meeting in his Senate office, and an exchange at a public event) that Sessions failed to disclose at his confirmation hearing, and that led to his recusal in the first place.

Overall, though, Comey’s account of Trump’s conduct was rightly treated as the major story coming out of this meeting. He has given his side of the story, and now, the ball is in special counsel Robert Mueller’s court.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.