The former FBI chief goes on the attack in his first public account of his firing, accusing the president of pressuring him to drop Flynn probe.
Former FBI Director James Comey on Thursday accused President Donald Trump of lying when he said in the aftermath of Comey’s firing that the bureau was in disarray and that its agents had lost confidence in its leader.
“Those were lies, plain and simple,” Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In highly anticipated testimony, Comey offered his first public account of his dismissal last month and said there was “no doubt” that he had been fired “to change the nature of the Russia investigation,” referring to the FBI’s sprawling probe of Kremlin-backed meddling in the 2016 election.
That probe includes an examination of whether Trump aides colluded with the Kremlin campaign to hack into American political organizations and leak stolen documents. On Thursday, Comey refused to say in an open hearing whether he believed Trump colluded with that effort.
According to Comey, Trump attempted during his first weeks in office to recruit the FBI chief as an ally. Comey also said Trump pressured him to drop an FBI investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and that he demanded Comey’s “loyalty” during the early months of his administration.
Comey told the Senate panel that he was so concerned by his conversations with Trump that he immediately documented their encounters — which included a White House dinner, private meetings, and several phone calls — in a series of memorandums. “I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting,” Comey said.
Trump has disputed Comey’s account and implied on Twitter that there may be taped recordings of their encounters. Comey on Thursday called for those tapes to be released to the public. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” he said.
In a statement, Marc Kasowitz, a lawyer handling Russia-related matters for Trump, denied Comey’s version of events and said the president never demanded the FBI chief’s loyalty. Kasowitz described Comey as part of a cabal inside the government “who are actively trying to undermine this administration.”
Even as Comey laid bare an astounding account of his conversations with the president, he made clear that key details about the investigation remain unknown to the public. Intriguingly, Comey said he couldn’t discuss in an open hearing why it was problematic for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself from the probe of Kremlin meddling, to be involved in an investigation involving Russia.
The FBI’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether any Trump aides colluded with the effort has mired the White House in controversy during its first months. On Thursday, Comey provided additional information about the scope of that inquiry and whether it will target the president.
Comey said the bureau’s investigation of Flynn was criminal in nature and focused on the retired Army lieutenant general’s statements regarding contacts with Russian officials. Trump fired Flynn after less than a month in the job, allegedly because he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the content of his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Comey’s statement confirms that Flynn was under criminal investigation while serving as national security advisor, a position that would have granted him access to some of the United States’ most closely guarded national security and intelligence programs.
According to Comey, Trump pressured the FBI director during a Feb. 14 Oval Office meeting to drop the investigation targeting Flynn. “He is a good guy and has been through a lot,” Trump told Comey, according to the latter’s recollection. “I hope you can let this go.”
Trump’s critics have seized on that statement to argue that Trump attempted to interfere with an ongoing FBI investigation, which may amount to obstruction of justice. Comey refused on Thursday to say whether Trump committed a crime in pressuring him to drop the probe.
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller has been appointed as a special counsel to lead the investigation of Russian meddling, which has reportedly been expanded to include the probe of Flynn. Comey said he has turned over his memos to Mueller and said his investigation will likely examine whether Trump obstructed justice in pressuring Comey. “That’s Bob Mueller’s job to sort that out,” Comey said.
In a January meeting with then President-elect Trump, Comey said he informed his incoming boss that he wasn’t a target of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of Russian meddling. Comey said his senior aides were divided on whether to provide that assurance to Trump.
Comey said one of his aides — the identity of which the former FBI chief did not reveal — urged him not to tell Trump whether he was a target, as doing so would oblige the FBI to correct the record should that change.
When he was fired in May, Comey said Trump had not become a target of the investigation, but added that his actions may eventually come under scrutiny in the probe.
News of undisclosed meetings and communications between Trump aides and Russian officials have dogged the early months of the administration and have undermined the White House’s policy agenda. Trump has repeatedly railed against the media, which has produced a constant drumbeat of stories based on leaked information describing the Russia ties and alleged attempts by the White House to shut down the investigation.
On Thursday, Comey said that after he was fired, he instructed a close friend to describe to a New York Times reporter the memo he wrote documenting Trump’s attempt to convince the FBI to drop its investigation of Flynn. Comey said he instructed his friend to leak the information in order to generate momentum for the appointment of a special counsel to lead the bureau’s investigation.
Kasowitz, the Trump lawyer, seized on Comey’s admission that he leaked the contents of his memo and said he had revealed “privileged” and “classified” information. Kasowitz called on federal authorities to examine whether the disclosure should be investigated. Comey claimed during his testimony that the material was not classified.
In email to Foreign Policy, Columbia Law School Professor Daniel Richman confirmed that he served as Comey’s intermediary.
FP staff writer Jenna McLaughlin contributed reporting to this article.
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Correction, June 8, 2017: Michael Flynn is the former U.S. national security advisor fired for allegedly lying to Vice President Mike Pence. A previous version of this article called Flynn the vice president by mistake.