(CN) – FBI Director James Comey opened his much-anticipated testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday by saying the Trump administration defamed him and flat-out lied about the internal state of the FBI as it struggled to explain why President Donald Trump fired him.
“I was confused by initial explanation … that I was fired because of the decision I made during the election year,” Comey told the committee in his opening remarks, referring to his handling of the investigation into Democrat Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.
“That didn’t make sense for a bunch of reasons, including the time and all the water that went under the bridge since those hard decisions had to be made,” Comey said. “And though the law required no reason at all to fire an FBI director, the administration chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI, saying the organization is in disarray, poorly led and that they lost confidence in their leader.
“Those were lies plain and simple,” Comey continued. “The FBI will be fine without me. Their mission will be relentlessly pursued. The FBI is honest, the FBI is strong. And the FBI is and always will be independent.”
The former FBI director was also unequivocal two other points: “There should be n fuzz on this, the Russians did interfere with our election,” he said.
And: “It is my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation, to change it in some way.”
Comey later admitted that after accounts of his conversations with Trump about former NSA Chief Michael Flynn became public, he leaked a memo detailing his account of those exchanges to the press through a professor at the Columbia Law School.
He did not identify the friend who acted as a conduit to The New York Times, beyond mentioning his profession.
But in a May story about Comey, the Times quoted Columbia Law professor Daniel Richman, who it described as a friend of the former FBI director who had spoken with him “several times since he was fired.” After Comey’s revelation, the server at the Columbia Law School crashed due to a surge in traffic. Richman later confirmed to The Washington Post that he was indeed the conduit to the Times.
Comey said he made the decision to do so after the president tweeted he better hope there were no tapes of their conversations.
“I woke up [that] night and realized that there might be corroboration of the account that was emerging and that I needed to get that out to the public square,” Comey said. “I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. I thought that might prompt an appointment of a special counsel.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, R.- Missouri, asked whether Comey considered his memo a government document.
“I understand this to be my personal record of the conversation,” Comey said.
The former FBI director went on to say he hopes there are tapes of his conversations with the president and encouraged the White House to release them if they exist.
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” he said.
Asked directly whether he thought his firing and Trump’s actions leading up to it were an “obstruction of justice,” Comey declined to give a definitive answer.
“I don’t know. That’s for [Special Counsel] Bob Mueller to figure out,” Comey said.
The White House has not yet publicly commented on Comey’s testimony, but in an appearance at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington shortly after the intelligence committee session ended, Trump told his audience, “”We’re under siege. You understand that.”
White House sources said Trump plans to dispute key parts of Comey’s testimony, including his assertion in a document released on Wednesday that the president demanded his “loyalty.”
The president’s personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz, issued a statement shortly after 2 p.m. that said the president “never, in form or substance” directed Comey to stop investigating anyone, including Flynn. Kasowitz said that the president is “entitled to expect loyalty” from those serving the administration. But he said Trump never told Comey, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” as Comey claimed.
Kasowitz also blasted Comey’s acknowledged leak to The New York Times, calling the memo passed to the newspaper “unauthorized disclosures” of “privileged communications” he had with the president.
A jammed congressional hearing room grew absolutely silent as senators, reporters, photographers and spectators awaited Comey’s arrival on Capitol Hill Thursday morning.
When he did arrive, entering through a side door and walking swiftly to the front of the room, the sound of whirring cameras, the shutters flapping, sounded like nothing so much as an exhaled breathe.
So in demand was space at the hearing that even overflow rooms were crammed with onlookers and many members of the media were left to stand in long lines, pressed up against the committee chambers.
Even Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, a former presidential hopeful and no stranger to press attention, appeared to marvel at the size of the press contingent Comey drew, frequently turning his gaze to the reporters and photographers while others trained their rapt attention on the former FBI director.
When the questioning finally got under way Thursday, Comey said the president never asked him to end the FBI’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election, but he also told the senators the exchanges with the president about the matter left him with “a queasy feeling.”
Before turning to his interactions with the president, committee members sought to get clarification on why Comey initially said the Clinton email investigation was closed, only to reopen the issue, publicly, 11 day before the election.
Comey said he had grown concerned after former Attorney General Loretta Lynch instructed him to refer to the Clinton email case as a “matter” rather than an “investigation.”
He went on to say that his October announcement that the FBI was looking anew at Clinton’s email was driven by Lynch’s much-publicized meeting with former President Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac during the presidential campaign.
That meeting, Comey said, influenced his decision to disclose the FBI’s renewed interest in the emails “in an ultimately conclusive way.”
“That was the thing that capped it for me, that I had to do something separately to protect the credibility of the FBI,” Comey said.
“There were other things that contributed to that … but that was one of the bricks in the load that lead me to that decision,” he added.
Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence committee, then asked Comey about a private meeting with the president detailed in his written statement, a meeting that took place after Trump asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others to leave the room.
Warner wanted to know why the former FBI director felt he needed to document that discussion.
“My impression was something big is about to happen,” Comey said. “And I have to remember ever word that is spoken. I could be wrong, but it seemed the attorney general knew he shouldn’t be leaving. And I don’t know [Trump Advisor Jared] Kushner well, but I believe he picked up on the same thing. But I believed something very important was happening and I needed to pay attention to everything that was happening.”
Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, then picked up the questioning with Comey’s written account of a February meeting with the president shortly after former NSA director Michael Flynn was fired for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian officials before and after the president campaign.
During that meeting, Comey says the president told him he hoped the FBI could “let go” of the investigation.
“He is a good guy and has been through a lot,” Comey reported the president saying. “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’ … I did not say I would ‘let this go.’”
Comey said he understood the president to be requesting that the FBI drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December.
“I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign. I could be wrong, but I took him to be focusing on what had just happened with Flynn’s departure and the
controversy around his account of his phone calls. Regardless, it was very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.”
Sen. Risch repeated the account.
“The president said, ‘I hope you can let this go’ but he did not direct you to let it go …”
“Not in his words, no,” Comey said.
“He did not order you to let it go?” Risch said.
“Again those words are not an order” Comey said.
“He said ‘I hope.’ Like me, you’ve done hundreds of cases, charging people with criminal offenses … 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?”
“I don’t know well enough to answer,” Comey said. “I keep saying his words, because I took it as a direction. As the president of the United States, with me alone, saying ‘I hope’ this, I took it as a direction. I didn’t obey that, but that’s what I took it as.”
Sen. Ron Wyden, D.-Ore, asked Comey whether, he believes, looking back at that conversation, that his job security might be contingent on how he handled the FBI’s ongoing investigation into Flynn and Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“I don’t know that I would go that far,” Comey said. “I got the sense my job would be contingent about how he felt I conducted myself and whether I demonstrated loyalty.”
Wyden continued to press. “You said the president was trying to create some sort of patronage relationship. Isn’t the underling expected to behave in a manner consistent with wishes of boss?” the senator asked.
“Yes … or at least consider how what you’re doing will affect the boss,” Comey said.
The questioning next turned to the dossier prepared by a former member of British intelligence that claimed Trump had a dalliance with Russian prostitutes during a visit to the country in connection with the 2013 Miss Universe contest.
Comey recalled the president “had a strong and defensive reaction of that not being true.”
Comey said he felt at that point it was “important to share with him that we were not investigating him.”
“I was worried about being in J. Edgar Hoover-type situation,” Comey said, referring to the FBI’s first director, a controversial figure due to later revelations of secretive abuses of power.
“I didn’t want [the president] to think I was briefing him on this so I could hold it over him in some sort of way,” Comey said. “I was very keen not to leave the impression with him. That’s the context in which I said, ‘We are not personally investigating you.’”