WASHINGTON — Former FBI Director James Comey told senators today that he believes he was fired “to change the way the Russia investigation was being conducted,” and refused to answer in open session whether he believes President Trump colluded with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Comey also declared that he’d be happy if there are any White House tapes of his meetings with Trump and said he’d approve of their release. “I’ve seen the tweet about tapes,” he said of a Trump tweet. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
“All I can do is hope,” Comey added later. “The president knows whether or not he tapes me. If he did, I’m not offended. Release the tapes.”
Sitting behind Comey’s witness table in the second row of the packed Senate Intelligence Committee hearing was former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, who was fired by Trump on March 11 and whose hearing seat was secured by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “We can all agree with Jim Comey that, Lordy, we hope there are tapes,” Bharara live-tweeted.
Comey did not repeat the seven-page opening statement that the committee released early, at Comey’s request, on Wednesday.
“Even though I was appointed to a 10-year term, which Congress created in order to underscore the importance of the FBI being outside of politics and independent, I understood that I could be fired by a president for any reason, or for no reason at all,” he told the committee. “And on May the 9th, when I learned that I had been fired, for that reason, I immediately came home as a private citizen. But then, the explanations, the shifting explanations, confused me and increasingly concerned me.”
“…It confused me when I saw on television the president saying that he actually fired me because of the Russia investigation and learned, again, from the media that he was telling, privately, other parties that my firing had relieved great pressure on the Russia investigation.”
Comey said that although law does not require a reason 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, and I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them and I’m so sorry that the American people were told them,” he added.
Comey said special counsel Robert Mueller did not review or edit his written testimony, and emphasized he has “no doubt” that Russia conducted an extensive operation to try to influence the campaign.
“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?” asked Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) of Comey’s accounts of one-on-one interactions with Trump regarding the former national security advisor.
“General Flynn, at that point in time, was in legal jeopardy. There was an open FBI criminal investigation of his statements in connection with the Russian contacts and the contacts themselves. And so that was my assessment at the time,” he said, noting later in the hearing that he could not comment in open session on whether Flynn is still in legal jeopardy.
“I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct,” Comey added. “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 try and understand what the intention was there, and whether that’s an offense.”
“…In any complex investigation, when you start turning over rocks, sometimes you find things that are unrelated to the primary investigation, that are criminal in nature.”
Comey said he could not confirm or deny aspects of the Steele dossier “because it goes into the details of the investigation.”
The Russia operation, he said, consisted of “a massive effort to target government and nongovernmental — near-governmental agencies like nonprofits” and the number of targets “could be more than 1,000, but it’s at least hundreds.” The former director said he became aware of Russia’s campaign op in late 2015 or early 2016.
Comey said he took notes on his conversations with Trump because of “the circumstances, the subject matter and the person I was interacting with… I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document.”
He said one member of the FBI’s leadership team was concerned about telling Trump that he was at the time not the subject of the Bureau’s counterintelligence investigation “because we’re looking at the potential — again, that’s the subject of the investigation — coordination between the campaign and Russia, because it was President Trump — President-elect Trump’s campaign, this person’s view was, inevitably, his behavior, his conduct will fall within the scope of that work.” Comey said he went ahead and told the president because “I thought it was fair to say what was literally true.”
The leader who disagreed with Comey telling the president he wasn’t under CI investigation maintained that view. “His view was still that it was probably — although literally true, his concern was it could be misleading, because the nature of the investigation was such that it might well touch — obviously, it would touch the campaign, and the person at the head of the campaign would be the candidate,” Comey said.
The former FBI director said he was “uneasy” about Trump’s loyalty requests as “the statue of Justice has a blindfold on because you’re not supposed to be peeking out to see whether your patron is pleased or not with what you’re doing.”
On the Oval Office meeting — in which Comey said Trump told him, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go” — in which administration officials left the FBI head alone with the president, “My sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn’t be leaving, which is why he was lingering. And I don’t know Mr. Kushner well, but I think he picked up on the same thing. And so I knew something was about to happen that I needed to pay very close attention to.”
Comey said he took Trump’s words “as a direction.”
“I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying ‘I hope’ this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do,” he added. “Now I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.”
“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. I cannot discuss this with you’?” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked.
“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,” Comey replied. “…I remember saying, ‘I agree he’s a good guy,’ as a way of saying, ‘I’m not agreeing with what you just asked me to do.’ Again, maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance but that’s how I conducted myself. I hope I’ll never have another opportunity. Maybe if I did it again, I would do it better.” He later said other FBI officials briefed on Trump’s requests to “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigation were “as shocked and troubled by it as I was.”
On May 12, after Comey had been fired, Trump tweeted, “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
Comey told senators that a few days later he “woke up in the middle of the night… because it didn’t dawn on me originally that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might be a tape.”
“And my judgment was, I needed to get that out into the public square. And so I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself, for a variety of reasons,” he said. “But I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And so I asked a close friend of mine to do it.” The Washington Post confirmed that Columbia University professor Dan Richman is Comey’s friend who shared contents of the Oval Office meeting memo with the press.
The former FBI director told Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) that he compared Trump’s “I hope” statements on Flynn to a royal directive: “It rings in my ear as kind of, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?'”
“I was just going to quote that. In 1170, December 29, Henry II said, ‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ and then, the next day, he was killed Thomas Becket. That’s exactly the same situation,” King responded.
Comey elaborated on why FBI leaders did not discuss the president’s action with Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “Our judgment, as I recall, was 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 open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic,” he said.
“And so we were convinced — and, in fact, I think we had 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, and that turned out to be the case.”
Comey told Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) that he’s turned over his meeting notes to Mueller’s investigators.
He also further explained to Lankford why, in the Hillary Clinton email investigation, he went over Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s head to announce findings to the public.
“We were getting to a place where the attorney general and I were both going to have to testify and talk publicly about. And I wanted to know, was she going to authorize us to confirm we had an investigation? And she said, yes, but don’t call it that, call it a matter. And I said, why would I do that? And she said, just call it a matter,” Comey testified, adding he was concerned that the FBI was being asked to use the same term that the Clinton campaign used. “I don’t know whether it was intentional or not, but it gave the impression that the attorney general was looking to align the way we talked about our work with the way a political campaign was describing the same activity, which was inaccurate.”
“We had a criminal investigation open with — as I said before, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We had an investigation open at the time, and so that gave me a queasy feeling.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked Comey, “Do you believe Donald Trump colluded with Russia?”
“That’s a question I don’t think I should answer in an open setting,” Comey replied. “As I said… when I left, we did not have an investigation focused on President Trump. But that’s a question that’ll be answered by the investigation, I think.”