One month ago, James Comey was addressing a room full of FBI employees in Los Angeles, when he realized that he was being pranked. On a television screen above the officers’ heads, a news network was reporting that President Trump had abruptly fired his FBI director. According to the New York Times, Comey complimented his fellow G-men on a “fairly funny” stunt.
Then Comey was asked to step into a side office — and, from there, into his newfound unemployment.
A lot has happened since May 9. Contrary to Trump’s naïve hopes, Comey didn’t take the Russia scandal with him into obscurity — in fact, he didn’t even take himself. On Wednesday, Comey allowed his opening statement at today’s hearing to be published in advance, and it confirmed every previous report of the president’s myriad attempts to undermine the FBI’s independence.
Now, Comey will tell his story to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and undergo its interrogation, in front of an audience of millions — including a reality-television president with a finger poised above his Twitter app.
So fire up some popcorn, call in sick, and enjoy “Washington’s Super Bowl” with Daily Intelligencer’s live analysis and commentary:
Nine revelations from this morning’s hearing.
The public session is over, the senators will interrogate Comey in a private session beginning at 1 p.m. Here are the most significant things we learned this morning.
1) Comey believes that the special prosecutor should look into whether Trump’s behavior toward him constituted obstruction of justice.
2) Comey says that the president is a liar, who defamed him and the FBI.
3) Comey suggested that the investigation into Michael Flynn does not overlap significantly with the investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. He also suggested that a New York Times report that linked Trump associates to Russian intelligence officials was almost entirely false. Still, he did not feel comfortable saying, in open session, that he believes Donald Trump did not collude with the Russian government.
4) The FBI’s leadership all believed Sessions had no choice but to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, in light of facts that made his oversight of the matter “problematic.”
5) Speaking of problematic behavior from attorneys general: Comey says Loretta Lynch asked him to refer publicly to the Clinton email probe as a “matter,” rather than an investigation. This request made Comey “queasy,” as it tracked with the campaign’s own preferred rhetoric. The former FBI director says that the request contributed to his decision to keep Lynch at a distance from the investigation.
6) Comey believes he was fired because Trump disapproved of his handling of the Russia investigation. He believes this because Trump said on national television that this was the reason why Comey was fired.
7) Comey leaked his memos to the press with the hope that they would trigger the appointment of a special prosecutor.
8) In Comey’s telling, Trump once called him to explain why he was more certain than ever that there was no tape of him fornicating with Russian sex workers.
9) John McCain is too old for this.
And, in reverse chronological order, here’s a blow-by-blow of today’s hearing:
12:32 p.m. Is John McCain drunk?
John McCain rambling incoherently, seems to be collapsing the investigation into Clinton’s email server and the hacking of the Clinton campaign’s emails.
McCain is apparently insinuating that the FBI should be investigating Clinton for potentially colluding with the Russian government to undermine her own campaign.
12:24 p.m. The president appears to be successfully exercising self-restraint.
Meanwhile, the White House confirms that Trump has confidence in attorney general Sessions (a statement it was not comfortable making days ago).
John Cornyn takes his turn as Trump’s defense counsel. Asks Comey if he thinks firing the FBI director is a good way for a president to kill an investigation. Comey says no, but admits he’s biased, given that he’s the one who was fired.
Cornyn ostensibly suggesting that Trump couldn’t have fired Comey with the intention of killing the Russia investigation, since that would be a stupid thing to do. And everyone knows Donald Trump never does stupid things.
White House claims that the president (a cable news addict) hasn’t had much time to take in this morning’s proceedings (the biggest television news event of the year, thus far).
Asked whether he believes Trump colluded with the Russian government, Comey says he can’t answer that in an open session – but stipulates that he does not mean to single anything nefarious with his silence.
Comey disputes the veracity of a bombshell New York Times report on Trump associates’s contacts with Russian intelligence.
Tom Cotton asks about the interactions Comey didn’t record in his written testimony. Comey says that Trump called him to say that he had reflected more on the salacious claim in the Christopher Steele dossier, and “had thoughts about why it wasn’t true” (that he had paid Russian sex workers to urinate in front of him).
Comey reiterates that Trump has his full permission to release tapes of their conversations.
Earlier, Comey likened Trump expressing the “hope” that the investigation into Flynn would disappear to an anecdote about Henry II. Specifically that king’s complicity in the murder of his Archibishop of Canterbury–Thomas Becket– in 1170.
Specifically, Henry II reportedly said: “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest,” in the presence of his aristocratic cronies, which they took as direction to kill him.
Paul Ryan suggests that a man who spent a year-and-a-half imploring Americans to make him their president can’t be expected to understand the basic responsibilities that come with that job.
Senator Angus King references these remarks from Trump, gets Comey to confirm that they were lies.
Earlier, senator Risch suggested that no one had ever been held legally responsible for obstruction of justice, merely for expressing a “hope” that was interpreted as a command.
That appears to be untrue.
In his conversations with Comey, Trump expressed concerns about Michael Flynn’s fate, the damage the “pee tape” allegation had done to his reputation, and the FBI director’s loyalty.
He never expressed concerns about Russia’s attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the 2016 election.
Specifically, Comey said he leaked his memos to the press through a close friend of his at Columbia law school. You can watch a CNN interview with that friend here.
11:24 a.m. Comey leaked his memos to the press following Trump’s tweet threatening to release tapes of their conversations – with the specific intention of triggering the appointment of a special prosecutor(!)
Trump made a lot of poor decisions in the aftermath of Comey’s termination. But in hindsight, this tweet may be the single most ill-advised.
Comey explains why he voluntarily informed Trump that he was not under investigation: The FBI director first met the president-elect to brief him on the infamous Christopher Steele dossier, and wanted to make it clear that this was not a “J. Edgar Hoover situation” – he was not trying to hold this over the president’s head as a kind of blackmail. May be first time an FBI Director has been so snarky about The Founder.
11:10 a.m. Comey refers to facts about Sessions and Russia that made the attorney general’s oversight of the investigation “problematic.”
Asked why the FBI did not inform Sessions of Trump’s specific acts of interference, Comey says that the bureau’s leadership team was convinced that Sessions would have to recuse himself from the Russia probe, eventually.
Rubio suggests he finds it mildly outrageous that no one leaked word that Trump wasn’t under investigation, given how many other details of the FBI’s probe have made it to the press.
(People did leak word that Trump wasn’t under investigation to the press.)
Rubio emphasizes key point for team Trump: Comey doesn’t believe Trump ever asked him to drop the investigation into his campaign’s Russia ties. When Trump asked him to “lift” the “cloud” of the Russia investigation, Comey understood the president to be asking him to publicly announce that the president was not personally under investigation.
Don Jr. speaks for the defense.
10:54 a.m. Comey: I was fired because of the Russia investigation.
Asked why he believes he was fired, Comey replies, “I don’t know for sure” but:
Senator Risch plays Trump’s defense attorney: Notes that Trump didn’t command Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn, but said “I hope” you will drop the investigation.
Comey confirms that Trump didn’t command him to drop the investigation with “his words.” But insists that he interpreted the president’s words as a command, seeing as they came in private (after Trump asked him to pledge loyalty).
Risch maintains that Trump was merely voicing an abstract wish – he “hopes” Comey lets Flynn go the way he hopes the Yankees win the pennant.
Comey throws shade at Jeff Sessions. On the day Trump infamously asked his attorney general to leave the room, so he could speak with the FBI director alone (about dropping the investigation into Flynn), Comey says Sessions appeared to know that he shouldn’t honor that request, but did any way.
Comey adds a persuasive new interpretive point to his published account. He believed Trump thought he “gave away” Comey’s chance to stay in the job for nothing, and was trying to reopen the negotiation even after Comey had already stated his desire to keep his position.
Comey answers one of the questions unanswered in his pre-hearing testimony: Why did he take detailed memos of his every meeting with Trump, even before the president started trying to undermine his independence.
Answer: Unlike other presidents, Trump is a known liar.
10:33 a.m. Comey indicates special prosecutor is looking into Trump for obstruction of justice.
Comey declines to give his opinion on whether the actions he describes Trump taking constitute obstruction of justice.
10:29 a.m. Comey declines to say that the FBI hasn’t confirmed any criminal allegations in the infamous Steele dossier.
Burr seems to have expected a different answer.
10:21 a.m. Comey: The Trump administration defamed me and the FBI.
Comey claims that initially, he was inclined to accept his dismissal quietly and return to private life. But the administration gave an explanation for his firing – that the Justice Department disapproved of his handling of the Clinton email investigation – that didn’t make sense “for a whole bunch of reasons.” Namely, that there had been so much “time” and “water under the bridge” since the decisions on that investigation were made.
And then Trump began suggesting publicly – and, to Russian officials – that the firing was linked to the investigation, and Trump’s desire to relieve the “pressure” that investigation put him under.
And then, Trump “chose to defame” Comey and the FBI.
The fact that Comey feels comfortable using this language testifies to his confidence in his support among the FBI’s rank-and-file.
Warner continues to remind us what we know: Trump asked Comey to pledge loyalty, and, then, to demonstrate that loyalty by dropping the FBI’s investigation into Flynn and doing something to “lift” the “cloud” the Russia investigation had cast over his administration.
Warner also references yesterday’s hearing with America’s top intelligence officials, who refused to say whether or not the president asked them to encourage Comey to let Flynn go easy.
Burr indicates that the committee’s Republicans plan to grill Comey on his handling of the Clinton email investigation today. Just a few weeks ago, the GOP was perfectly content with that investigation, while Democrats were eager to castigate Comey over it.
In his opening statement, the committee’s ranking Democrat Mark Warner keeps the focus on what we already know about Trump and Russia, including the president’s “unexplained affection” for Vladimir Putin.
10:06 a.m. Trump disputes Comey’s account.
Comey is seated. Richard Burr is saying niceties.
Meanwhile, Trump is officially disputing Comey’s claim that he demanded the FBI director pledge personal loyalty to him.
Yesterday, Trump claimed he felt “vindicated” by Comey’s testimony.
Preet Bharara, one of the U.S. attorneys whom Trump fired, has a front row seat.
Bharara has been unflinching in his criticism of the president.