Comey Testimony: Trump Asked for Loyalty, to 'Lift Cloud' of Russia Probe
WASHINGTON -- Former FBI Director James Comey will tell lawmakers Thursday that President Trump asked him multiple times to "lift the cloud" of the Russia investigation and told him an a private Oval Office dinner that “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
A day before his highly anticipated public testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice-Chairman Mark Warner released the prepared remarks Comey is set to deliver in his opening statement.
"I have not included every detail from my conversations with the president, but, to the best of my recollection, I have tried to include information that may be relevant to the committee," begins Comey's statement.
Comey said that on Jan. 6 he met with then-President-Elect Trump in a conference room at Trump Tower, asked to do so by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper because Comey was staying on while Clapper was retiring. Comey said he was alone with Trump after a meeting on the intelligence community report that found Russia waged an influence operation in the 2016 presidential campaign "to brief him on some personally sensitive aspects of the information assembled during the assessment." Comey said he and Clapper agreed Comey would meet with Trump alone at the end of the briefing "to minimize potential embarrassment" to Trump, suggesting that Trump was briefed on the contents of the Steele dossier.
Intel leaders thought it was important to brief Trump, Comey's prepared testimony states, in part because "to the extent there was some effort to compromise an incoming president, we could blunt any such effort with a defensive briefing."
Stressing in length that counterintelligence investigations are different from FBI criminal investigations, Comey said "we did not have an open counter-intelligence case on him" as of the Jan. 6 meeting, and "during our one-on-one meeting at Trump Tower, based on President-elect Trump’s reaction to the briefing and without him directly asking the question, I offered that assurance."
"I felt compelled to document my first conversation with the president-elect in a memo," Comey's testimony continues. "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. Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward."
'This had not been my practice in the past," he added. "I spoke alone with President Obama twice in person (and never on the phone) – once in 2015 to discuss law enforcement policy issues and a second time, briefly, for him to say goodbye in late 2016. In neither of those circumstances did I memorialize the discussions. I can recall nine one-on-one conversations with President Trump in four months – three in person and six on the phone."
On Jan. 27, Comey said Trump called him around lunchtime and asked him to come to the White House for dinner that night, first offering to invite Comey's family but then telling the FBI director they could come next time. Comey states he "assumed there would be others" there, but it was just the two of them.
"The president began 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 said that lots of people wanted my job and, given the abuse I had taken during the previous year, he would understand if I wanted to walk away," Comey said. "My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch."
Comey said he told Trump that he loved his job and intended to serve out his 10-year term, then "because the set-up made me uneasy" he added he "was not 'reliable' in the way politicians use that word" but told Trump he was apolitical and the president "could always count on me to tell him the truth."
"A few moments later, the president said, 'I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.' I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner," Comey continues, adding that he explained to Trump "why it was so important that the FBI and the Department of Justice be independent of the White House."
Near the end of the meal, "the president returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, 'I need loyalty.' I replied, 'You will always get honesty from me.' He paused and then said, 'That’s what I want, honest loyalty.' I paused, and then said, 'You will get that from me.' As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase 'honest loyalty' differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further."
Comey said Trump "returned to the salacious material" included in Trump's Jan. 6 private briefing, "and, as he had done previously, expressed his disgust for the allegations and strongly denied them. He said he was considering ordering me to investigate the alleged incident to prove it didn’t happen. I replied that he should give that careful thought because it might create a narrative that we were investigating him personally, which we weren’t, and because it was very difficult to prove a negative. He said he would think about it and asked me to think about it."
After the dinner, Comey said he "immediately" wrote a memo about the meeting and shared with senior FBI leaders.
On Feb. 14, Comey went to the White House for a counterterrorism briefing with other agency heads.
"The president signaled the end of the briefing by thanking the group and telling them all that he wanted to speak to me alone. I stayed in my chair. As the participants started to leave the Oval Office, the attorney general lingered by my chair, but the president thanked him and said he wanted to speak only with me. The last person to leave was Jared Kushner, who also stood by my chair and exchanged pleasantries with me. The president then excused him, saying he wanted to speak with me," the testimony continues.
The first thing Trump said after the door to the Oval Office closed, Comey said, was “I want to talk about Mike Flynn.” The former DIA chief had stepped down as national security advisor the previous day.
"The president began by saying Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong in speaking with the Russians, but he had to let him go because he had misled the vice president. He added that he had other concerns about Flynn, which he did not then specify,"
At one point, White House chief of staff cracked open the door and Trump waved him away. "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.' (In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my term at FBI.) I did not say I would 'let this go,'" Comey's statement says.
Trump "returned briefly to the problem of leaks" before Comey says he got up and left the meeting, after which he "immediately" wrote a memo and shared details with FBI leaders.
"I had 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. 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," Comey continued.
"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. We also concluded that, given that it was a one-on-one conversation, there was nothing available to corroborate my account. We concluded it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations." Sessions recused himself two weeks after the meeting.
"After discussing the matter, we decided to keep it very closely held, resolving to figure out what to do with it down the road as our investigation progressed," the former director said. "The investigation moved ahead at full speed, with none of the investigative team members – or the Department of Justice lawyers supporting them – aware of the president’s request."
Comey says that "shortly" after the Oval Office meeting, he was speaking with Sessions on the subject of Trump's concerns about leaks when he "took the opportunity to implore the attorney general to prevent any future direct communication between the president and me."
"I told the AG that what had just happened – him being asked to leave while the FBI director, who reports to the AG, remained behind – was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply," he added. "For the reasons discussed above, I did not mention that the president broached the FBI’s potential investigation of General Flynn."
On March 30, Comey got a call at his FBI office from Trump, in which the president "described the Russia investigation as 'a cloud' that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country."
"He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to 'lift the cloud.' I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our having done the work well. He agreed, but then re-emphasized the problems this was causing him," says Comey's testimony.
Trump, he said, "asked why there had been a congressional hearing about Russia the previous week – at which I had, as the Department of Justice directed, confirmed the investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign."
"I explained the demands from the leadership of both parties in Congress for more information, and that Senator Grassley had even held up the confirmation of the Deputy Attorney General until we briefed him in detail on the investigation. I 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 added of the counterintelligence investigation. "He repeatedly told me, 'We need to get that fact out.' (I did not tell the president that the FBI and the Department of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most importantly because it would create a duty to correct, should that change.)"
"The president went on to say that if there were some 'satellite' associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out that we weren’t investigating him."
Comey said that after the call he immediately phoned Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente, since Sessions had recused himself, "to report the substance of the call from the president, and said I would await his guidance."
"I did not hear back from him before the president called me again two weeks later," he added.
On April 11, Comey said, Trump called again "and asked what I had done about his request that I 'get out' that he is not personally under investigation"; Comey explained that Boente had not called back.
"He replied that 'the cloud' was getting in the way of his ability to do his job. He said that perhaps he would have his people reach out to the acting deputy attorney general. I said that was the way his request should be handled," Comey's statement continues. "He said he would do that and added, 'Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.' I did not reply or ask him what he meant by 'that thing.'”
Comey said it was the last time he spoke with Trump. He was fired via letter on May 9.