Ousted FBI chief James Comey accused Donald Trump’s White House of lies and defamation on Thursday in wounding sworn testimony that plunged his already troubled presidency deeper into peril.
During almost three hours of extraordinarily frank televised statements, Comey described himself as “stunned” by Trump’s “very disturbing” and “very concerning” behavior in several private meetings. Detailing one-on-one talks with a sitting president—which under normal circumstances would never see the light of day—Comey said he took painstaking notes for fear Trump might “lie” about the unusual encounters.
That account painted a devastating picture of an untrustworthy president, who at best unknowingly shred the norms of office by pressing Comey on the probe into Russian election meddling, and at worst may have criminally obstructed justice. During one White House dinner, Comey recalled that the president asked him for “loyalty” and to lay off his former national security adviser Mike Flynn—who is under criminal investigation over his Russia ties—imploring Comey to “let this go.”
Comey indicated that it was now up to a high-powered special prosecutor to determine whether that behavior, and his own sacking, constituted an obstruction of justice, a potentially impeachable offense. “It’s my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” he told senators. “I was fired in some way to change, or the endeavor was to change the way the Russia investigation was being conducted. That is a very big deal.”
Easing months of speculation, Comey did confirm that Trump was not personally the subject of a counterterror or criminal probe when he left the FBI last month.
The White House and Trump’s lawyers expressed vindication over some parts of Comey’s testimony and lashed out at others. “I can definitely say the president is not a liar and frankly am insulted by that question,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
Lawyer Marc Kasowitz said the president “never told Mr. Comey ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty’ in form or substance,” rejecting a key allegation made by the sacked FBI director. Deploying Trump’s trademark bareknuckle style, Kasowitz also suggested the ousted lawman should be prosecuted for leaking “privileged information.”
Trump avoided directly responding to the explosive accusations, defiantly telling supporters at a religious event in the capital: “We are going to fight and win.”
After solemnly raising his right hand and vowing to tell the whole truth, a visibly aggrieved Comey kicked off his testimony with a bid to set the record straight about the state of the bureau he led until he was sacked last month. “Although the law requires no reason at all 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 work force had lost confidence in its leader,” he charged. “Those were lies plain and simple,” Comey said, firing a shot of tension through hearing room 216 of the Senate’s Hart building, which stood silent except for the shutter clicks of a phalanx of photographers capturing the moment of pure political theater.
Lawmakers started the hearing with a call for unity of purpose, but the pretense of bipartisanship soon fell away. Democrats are intent on determining whether Trump’s actions amounted to obstruction of justice, while Republicans have zeroed in on Comey’s admission he assured the president he was not personally an FBI investigation target.
Trump abruptly fired Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on May 9, admitting later that the Russia probe was on his mind at the time. In his written statement, Comey described his mounting discomfort in the weeks leading up to his dismissal as Trump pulled him aside in person and phoned to press him on the probe into his campaign associates and possible collusion with a Russian effort to tilt the 2016 vote in the Republican’s favor.
At a private White House dinner on Jan. 27, just days after the billionaire took office, Comey said Trump appeared to want to “create some sort of patronage relationship” with him. “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,” Comey said.
In an Oval Office tete-a-tete the following month, Comey said Trump pressed him to drop the FBI investigation into Flynn, who had been fired for lying to the vice president about his unreported conversations with the Russian ambassador. And he described trying to insulate himself and the FBI from political pressure, as the president complained about the Russian probe and labeled it “fake news.”
Harvard law School professor Mark Tushnet said onlookers should keep in mind that Comey knows much more than he can say. “He’s saying that when he looks at all the evidence that he knows, that he draws the conclusion that the president was trying to pull him off the investigation of Flynn. It’s a pretty powerful statement that an investigator with his background, [says] when I look at this investigation, this is what I conclude. So his statement is a big deal.”
As the hearing played out, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan appeared to sympathize with Trump over his interactions with Comey, telling a news conference that “the president’s new at this.”
“He’s new to government. So he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI and White Houses. He’s just new to this.”
Networks and cable news stations provided blanket coverage of the testimony, and hundreds of people turned out at Washington bars for watch-parties, glued to live TV broadcasts of the hearing. “There’s been so much media hype,” said Sadie Cornelius, 33. “It’s good to actually hear this from the source.”