Washington: Ousted FBI chief James Comey and President Donald Trump accused each other of lying about their private encounters in the wake of dramatic Senate testimony that centered on whether the president sought to quash part of a federal probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
During 2 1/2 hours of testimony Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey said Trump’s shifting explanations for dismissing him were “lies, plain and simple." He said he wrote detailed memos of their conversations because he feared the president—who ultimately fired him on 9 May—would paint a false picture of their encounters.
Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, fired back hours later. He disputed Comey’s claim that Trump demanded loyalty from the FBI chief or directed him to back off a probe of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, which was part of the broader inquiry into Moscow’s role in the presidential campaign. But he also said the former FBI chief’s testimony proved Trump was innocent of wrongdoing.
“These important facts for the country to know are virtually the only facts that have not leaked during the long course of these events," Kasowitz told reporters in Washington. “The president feels completely vindicated."
Senators at the hearing pressed Comey for more details about his encounters with Trump, particularly whether he thought that the president sought to obstruct justice. Comey declined to answer the question directly, saying he would leave that to Robert Mueller, another former FBI chief who is now special counsel leading the Russia probe and is in possession of Comey’s memos on the Trump conversations.
According to Comey, at a White House meeting in February just one day after Flynn was fired, Trump pressed him to ease up on his inquiry into the former national security adviser. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go," Trump said, according to Comey. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."
In a line that lawmakers, lawyers and the public will scrutinize, Comey said he interpreted the request on Flynn to be “direction" on what he should do.
“This is the president of the United States with me alone," Comey said, though he made clear that he didn’t feel Trump was referring to the broader investigation into Russia.
Comey said he began the practice of documenting his encounters with Trump immediately after meeting him for the first time on 6 January in New York, two weeks before the inauguration. He said he wrote up their exchanges partly because of “the nature of the person."
“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it was important to document it," Comey, 56, said. The White House responded as the hearing was still under way, with spokeswoman Sarah Sanders telling reporters, “The president is not a liar."
It was Comey’s first public appearance since Trump dismissed him, following the release on Wednesday of prepared remarks detailing a series of one-on-one conversations the two men had from January to April. Beyond the comments on Flynn, those interactions included Trump’s insistence at their first White House meeting on “loyalty."
Lawmakers will have to determine whether Comey’s testimony shows that Trump crossed any legal boundaries. While Comey told senators he found the discussion with Trump “a very disturbing thing," he added that, “I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct." He later added, “that’s Bob Mueller’s job to sort that out."
“In the court of public opinion, this is probably not good for the president," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said afterward. “It doesn’t come off looking good."
But Graham, a former Air Force lawyer, added, “I don’t think he broke the law." In a lighter moment, Comey referred to Trump’s apparent warning on Twitter that there could be recordings of their conversations that would undercut the former FBI chief’s account of events.
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes," Comey said. He later said Trump’s comment prompted him to ask an acquaintance to leak portions of the memos he prepared on his conversations with the president in an effort to spur the appointment of a special counsel.
‘Chose to defame’
Comey also told the committee that he felt Trump’s decision to fire him was confusing. And he added that he was angered in particular by Trump’s comments in an interview with NBC, in which he said he fired Comey because of the Russia probe and because “the FBI was in turmoil."
“He had repeatedly told me I was doing a great job and hoped I would stay," Comey said. But after he was fired, he said “the administration chose to defame me" as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
According to his prepared remarks, Comey detailed one encounter over dinner at the White House in January, when Trump told the nation’s top law enforcement officer, “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty." Comey said an awkward silence followed. When Trump returned to the issue of loyalty later in the meal, Comey said he could offer “honesty."
House Speaker Paul Ryan defended the president, telling reporters Thursday that Trump is “new at this," adding, “He’s new to government, so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, the FBI and the White House."
Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina said lawmakers were also seeking to understand if Trump’s apparent efforts to weigh in on the investigation in any way affected the probe.
“We will establish the facts separate from rampant speculation and lay them out before the American people to make their own judgment," Burr said. “Today is your opportunity to set the record straight."
Highlighting the degree of interest in the hearing, Washington bars opened hours early to serve patrons wanting to spend the day watching the back-and-forth. Hundreds of people waited in line outside the full hearing room seeking a seat. Among those who got in was former US Attorney Preet Bharara, who was also fired by Trump.
‘A regular Thursday’
At the White House, spokeswoman Sanders said it was “a regular Thursday," adding that “we’re carrying on." She said she didn’t know if Trump watched the hearing, saying he spent most of his morning meeting with his top foreign policy advisers. While the hearing was still under way, Trump spoke at a conference of evangelical Christians at a Washington hotel.
“We’re under siege, you understand that," Trump told the supportive audience. “But we will come out bigger and better and stronger than ever."
After the open hearing ended, Comey was scheduled to testify to the Senate panel in a closed-door session, at which sensitive or classified information can be discussed. Senator Mark Warner, the committee’s top Democrat, said Comey’s testimony painted a damning portrait of Trump.
“Think about it: the President of the United States asking the FBI Director to drop an ongoing investigation," Warner said.
Asked at the hearing why Comey’s assertions should be believed over White House denials, Comey cited Trump’s insistence on meeting with him alone, at one point asking other top officials including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and son-in-law Jared Kushner to leave the room.
“A really significant fact to me is, so why did he kick everyone out of the Oval Office?" Comey said. “That, to me as an investigator, is a very significant fact."
The Senate panel also plans to hear at some point from Kushner, one of Trump’s closest White House aides. Kushner in December discussed the idea of creating a secret communications channel with Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak, as the Trump team was in the middle of its transition to the White House.
The committee is working with Kushner to determine a time for him to meet with the panel’s staff, according to a person familiar with the discussions. They haven’t set a date yet, but Kushner’s lawyer has said he would share information with Congress if contacted as part of an inquiry. Bloomberg