James Comey, the former FBI director appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that there is “no doubt” in his mind that he was fired “because of the Russia investigation.”
“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,” he told senators during the hearing, which lasted 2 hours and 30 minutes.
His comments were just one of several key moments of his dramatic testimony, as Washington and much of the country stopped their regular day to tune or listen in.
Comey said that when President Donald Trump told him that he “hoped you can let” an investigation into Michael Flynn go, he took it as a “direction.”
Comey was talking about a Feb. 14 meeting with Trump, after the president cleared the Oval Office to have a private, one-on-one conversation with him.
Flynn had been forced to resign as national security adviser the day before, and during their conversation, Comey said that Trump told him that he hoped he could “see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Although Comey said that Trump didn’t say so in words, “I took it as direction.”
Comey said that he started taking detailed memos of their meetings after their first private conversation on Jan. 6. He said that “I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting and I thought it important to document.”
After he was fired on May 9, Trump tweeted three days later that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
Comey said that after that tweet, he gave the details of the Feb. 14 meeting memo to a friend at Columbia University who could leak it to a reporter. Comey said that he hoped that the news, published in the New York Times on May 16, would compel the naming of a special counsel. That is what happened. His predecessor as FBI director, Robert Mueller, is now leading the probe of Russian interference into the 2016 election and possible collusion by members of Trump’s campaign team.
He said that he did not know whether Trump actually recorded their conversation, adding, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
“If he did, my feelings aren’t hurt. Release all the tapes,” Comey said.
Comey told the committee that Trump himself was not under investigation, even at the time of his firing on May 9 — something that he told the president. Trump told Comey of the “need” to make that fact public, Comey said, but he had concerns about doing so as it would raise the issue of whether the FBI would have to go public and “correct” that statement should that change.
Comey opened his testimony with a short statement in which he said that in the wake of his firing, the Trump administration “chose to defame me and then the FBI.”
He said that Trump’s claims that the FBI was poorly led and in a degree of disarray were “lies, plain and simple.”
“I want the American people to know this truth: The FBI is honest, the FBI is strong, and the FBI is and always will be independent,” he said.
Comey didn’t confine his comments to Trump or his administration. At one point, he made a reference to an awkward conversation last year with Loretta Lynch, President Barack Obama’s attorney general. He said that she insisted that the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of her e-mails be called a “matter,” a less loaded term.
Wearing a suit and a blue checked burgundy tie, Comey started his testimony by describing how he was let go by Trump, which he knew was the president’s prerogative, but that the “shifting” explanations for why he was terminated “confused me and increasingly concerned me.”
He was referring to the initial characterization of his firing as caused by the way that he handled the investigation over the handling of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. But in an interview with NBC News anchor Lester Holt, Trump said that the FBI’s ongoing Russia investigation was on his mind as he chose to fire Comey.
“I take the president at his word that I was fired for the Russia investigation,” Comey said.
Comey’s appearance was one of the most anticipated moments of congressional testimony in years, drawing some comparisons to the drama of the Watergate hearings more than four decades ago. All the commercial broadcast networks covered it live, joining cable news networks and a flurry of online outlets, while some Washington bars opened early so patrons could watch. CNN started a countdown clock earlier in the week, and set up one of its teams led by Wolf Blitzer on the grounds of Capitol Hill.
There, hundreds packed the Senate hallways waiting to get in, while the gallery quickly filled with reporters, guests, and other viewers. Among those in the crowd: Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in New York who was also fired by the new administration.
Comey released his opening statement on Wednesday, giving a peek at much of what he would reveal. In the statement, which he did not read on Thursday, he said that at a Jan. 27 dinner with Trump, just a week after he took office, the president told him “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” Comey said “I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed.” Comey said that he worried that Trump’s dinner invite was an effort to establish a “patronage” relationship.
His opening statement confirmed reports of the Feb. 14 meeting. At the hearing, Comey said that Trump’s comments were “disturbing,” and he purposely wrote a memo about it that purposely avoided classified information so that it could not be shared with colleagues. He said that his concerns of the meeting started when Trump cleared the Oval Office so they could meet privately. “I knew something was about to happen I have to pay close attention to.”
Comey had been at the White House that day for a previously scheduled meeting on national security, with a number of top officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in attendance. He said that he thought that it was a “very significant fact” that Trump asked them to clear the room so that he could speak privately with Flynn.
Under questioning, some of the senators asked Comey why he didn’t stand up to Trump during that meeting.
He said that he was “so stunned by the conversation” on Feb. 14 and that he “took it in.”
“Maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance,” he said.
Comey also said that in a March 30 phone call with the president, Trump asked him what he could do to “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigation, and also said that they “need” to get the fact out that Trump himself wasn’t under investigation.