James Comey has said his piece. After weeks of speculation about awkward dinners, nonconsensual hugs, and indecent proposals, the former FBI director has spilled the beans on the most talked-about, tumultuous relationship since Brangelina.
On Wednesday night, Comey offered detailed written testimony on five of his encounters with president Trump. That document confirmed virtually every previous report on their interactions. Most crucially, it established that Trump had asked Comey to pledge personal loyalty to him — and, then, to demonstrate that loyalty by dropping the FBI’s investigation into Michael Flynn.
On Thursday morning, the Senate Intelligence Committee spent three hours grilling Comey on the details of his story; the motives behind his actions; his intuitions about the president’s motives; and, of course, Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Here are the nine biggest revelations from Thursday’s hearing.
1) James Comey believes that Trump may be guilty of obstruction of justice.
The former FBI director was asked, repeatedly, whether he believed Trump had committed obstruction of justice. Comey refused to directly opine on that matter. But he did say that he believed “the special counsel will work toward” a conclusion on that question, and that it was “ [special counsel] Bob Mueller’s job to sort that out.”
At one point, Senator James Risch played the part of Trump’s defense attorney, noting that the president had only told Comey that he hoped the FBI director would let Flynn go.
“Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where they said or thought they hoped for an outcome?” Risch asked.
Comey couldn’t provide an answer to Risch’s question. (People have, in fact, been found guilty of obstruction for “I hope” statements). Nonetheless, Comey made it clear that he took Trump’s remark as a command.
“I mean, this is a president of the United States with me alone saying, ‘I hope this,’” Comey said. “I took it as, this is what he wants me to do. I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.”
Given that Trump asked everyone else to leave the room, before informing the FBI director (whose loyalty he had previously demanded) of his fondest hopes, this seems like a reasonable conclusion.
None of this means that Comey believes the president is guilty of obstruction. But the FBI director does believe that Trump tried to interfere with an active federal investigation, and that a special prosecutor should at least consider whether that interference constituted a criminal offense.
2) Comey said that the president is a liar, who defamed him and the FBI.
In his written testimony, Comey said that after his first meeting with Trump, he decided that he would have to keep a written record of his every interaction with the new president — even though he had kept no such records of his meetings with Barack Obama.
And yet, Comey’s account did not detail any misbehavior on the president’s part during their first meeting. This begged the question: Why did Comey immediately decide that he needed to take a different approach to his relationship with this president.
At his hearing, Comey answered this question with reference to the extraordinary subject of his first conversation with Trump — a dossier that accused the president-elect of having been compromised by the Russian government. But the FBI director also stipulated that the “nature of the person” was a factor.
“I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting, so I thought it important to document,” Comey said.
In other words: Comey saw the president as a liar. And in a separate part of his testimony, the former FBI director said that Trump had fully validated that impression.
“Although the law required 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 workforce had lost confidence in its leader,” Comey said in his opening remarks. “Those were lies, plain and simple.”
3) Comey leaked his memos to the press with the hope that they would trigger the appointment of a special prosecutor.
Two days after Comey was fired, the New York Times reported that Trump had asked his FBI director to pledge personal loyalty to him at a dinner in January.
The following morning, Trump (ostensibly) tried to intimidate Comey into silence with a tweet.
“The president tweeted on Friday after I got fired that I better hope there’s not tapes,” Comey told the Senate Thursday. “I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday night because it didn’t dawn on me originally that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might be a tape. My judgement was, I need to get that out into the public square.”
“I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter,” Comey continued. “I asked him to because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel.”
He thought right.
As Trump’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz noted, there’s something odd about Comey’s story: The Times report on the Trump-Comey dinner was based on the former FBI director’s memos. And yet, it was published the night before the president’s tweet — which Comey portrayed as one impetus for his decision to share his memos with the press.
“Although Mr. Comey testified he only leaked the memos in response to a tweet, the public record reveals that the New York Times was quoting from these memos the day before the referenced tweet,” Kasowitz said Thursday, “which belies Mr. Comey’s excuse for this unauthorized disclosure of privileged information and appears to [be] entirely retaliatory.”
Still, the bombshell memo that triggered Mueller’s appointment — and, eventually, Thursday’s hearing — was Comey’s description of Trump’s request on Flynn’s behalf, which was first reported after the president’s tweet.
4) Comey disputed a New York Times report on communications between Trump aides and Russian intelligence officials.
On Thursday, Comey stayed mum on the state of the investigation into the Trump campaign circa May 9. But he did dispute one high-profile report on the campaign’s alleged collusion in this exchange with Tom Cotton:
COTTON: On February 14 the New York Times published the story, the headline of which was “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence.” You were asked if that was an inaccurate story. Would it be fair to characterize that story as almost entirely wrong?
COTTON: Do you have — at the time the story was published — any indication of any contact between Trump people and Russians, intelligence officers, other government officials, or close associates of the Russian government?
COMEY: That’s one I can’t answer sitting here.
5) The FBI’s leadership all believed that Sessions had no choice but to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, in light of facts that made his oversight of the matter “problematic.”
In Comey’s account, the FBI knew Jeff Sessions was going to recuse himself from the Russia investigation before the attorney general knew that himself. Asked why the bureau never briefed Sessions on the president’s actions, Comey replied:
Our judgment, as I recall, is that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an opening setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic. So we were convinced — in fact, I think we’d already heard the career people were recommending that he recuse himself, that he was not going to be in contact with Russia-related matters much longer. That turned out to be the case.
6) 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 as 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.
7) Comey believes he was fired because Trump disapproved of his handling of the Russia investigation.
(He believes this because Trump said as much on national television.)
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.
Comey said that, shortly after their initial meeting, the president called him to “reiterate his rejection” of the Christopher Steele dossier’s most salacious allegation (that Vladimir Putin has a tape of Trump watching Russian sex workers pee on the bed that Barack and Michelle Obama stayed in during their stay in Moscow).
“He just wanted to reiterate his rejection of that allegation,” Comey said, “and talk about [how] he’d thought about it more, and why he thought it wasn’t true.”
Anyhow, according to Comey’s testimony, Trump assured his FBI Director that the “pee tape” wasn’t real at least three times – and expressed concern over the substance of Comey’s investigation (the Russian government’s attempts to subvert American democracy) not once.
9) John McCain is too old for this.
The Arizona senator — who has been widely described as a pivotal check on Trump’s power — made a compelling case for his imminent retirement Thursday. In eight incoherent minutes of interrogation, McCain appeared to accuse Comey of applying a double standard — because the FBI had declined to investigate the possibility that Hillary Clinton had conspired with the Russians to undermine her own campaign.
McCain later suggested that his incoherent questioning may have been the product of staying “up late watching the Diamondbacks night games.”