- REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Former FBI director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday about his conversations with President Donald Trump and subsequent fallout after his abrupt firing in May.
Comey’s statements to the committee were the first public comments he has made since his termination.
A slew of media reports after Comey’s firing raised new questions about the president’s motives behind removing the FBI director, as well as Trump’s actions with respect to an ongoing FBI investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russia during the 2016 election.
On Wednesday, the Senate website posted Comey’s opening remarks online, in which he confirmed reports that Trump had demanded his loyalty, and reports that Trump had pushed him to “let go” of the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
During his testimony on Thursday, Comey shed new light on his dealings with Trump, his assessment of Trump’s motives in firing him, and his concerns about the president’s interference in an independent FBI investigation.
Here’s a rundown of all the new information we learned from Comey’s testimony that had not previously been reported:
Comey believed he was fired because of the Russia investigation
The biggest takeaway from Comey’s testimony was his belief that he was fired because of his leadership on the FBI’s Russia probe.
“I know I was fired because of something about the way I was conducting the Russia investigation,” Comey told Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island. “I was in some way putting pressure on him, in some way irritating him, and he decided to fire me because of that.”
- AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
He added: “There’s no doubt that it’s a fair judgment – it’s my judgment – that I 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.”
Comey had also noted in his opening remarks that he became “confused” and “increasingly concerned” by the administration’s shifting explanation in the days following his firing.
Initially, the White House said that Comey was fired because of his handling of the Clinton email investigation, and that Trump’s decision to fire Comey was based entirely on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Later, Trump said he was going to fire Comey regardless of Rosenstein’s recommendation. Two days after removing Comey, Trump told NBC News’ Lester Holt that “this Russia thing” had been a factor in his decision.
Comey believed the Trump administration had defamed him
Comey expressed concern towards the White House’s repeated assertions that the president had lost confidence in Comey’s leadership, that the FBI was disorganized, and that Comey had “committed atrocities” while spearheading the bureau.
“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 told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.
He continued: “Those were lies, plain and simple, and I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them and I’m so sorry that the American people were told them.”
Comey’s rationale for documenting his conversations with Trump
Comey said in his opening remarks that he “felt compelled” to document his interactions with Trump after the first time he met the then-president-elect on Jan. 6. Comey added that this had not been his practice in the past; he had spoken to former president Obama twice – once in 2015 to discuss law enforcement policy, and once in 2016 to say goodbye as Obama prepared to leave office. In contrast, Comey said he spoke to Trump a total of nine times in four months.
During Thursday’s hearing, committee chairman Richard Burr asked Comey to expand on his reasons for documenting that first conversation with Trump.
- Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Comey replied that “a combination of factors” had prompted his decision.
“I was alone with the president of the United States – or the president-elect, soon to be president,” Comey said. He added that the subject matter was also important: “I was talking about matters that touch on the FBI’s core responsibility and that relate to the president – president-elect personally.”
Comey also said Trump’s “nature” was a factor in his decision.
“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document,” he told the committee. “That combination of things, I’d never experienced before, but it led me to believe I’ve got to write it down, and I’ve got to write it down in a very detailed way.”
When it came to his Feb. 14 meeting with Trump – when the president said he hoped Comey would drop the FBI’s investigation into Flynn – Comey said he had documented it because he thought it was a “disturbing development.” He also said the memo was unclassified because he wanted it to be “accessible” to the government and the FBI.
Why Comey decided to ‘leak’ the February memo to the press
Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he had instructed his close friend and Columbia Law School professor Daniel Richman to “leak” information about his memo on the February Oval Office meeting to the media.
“My judgment was, I needed to get that out into the public square,” Comey said. “And so I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself, for a variety of reasons. But I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And so I asked a close friend of mine to do it.”
Comey’s request came after Trump tweeted that Comey should hope “no tapes” exist of their conversations.
- REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Kevin Lamarque/File Photos
Senior FBI leadership was aware of Comey’s interactions with Trump
Sen. Feinstein asked Comey whom he had spoken to about his February meeting with Trump.
Comey replied that his chief of staff, the deputy director, the general counsel, the deputy director’s chief counsel were aware of the meeting. He also said that the associate deputy director was briefed “more often than not,” and that some conversations had been relayed to the head of the FBI’s national security branch.
Senior leaders were “shocked and troubled” by the developments, Comey said. “They’re all experienced people who had never experienced such a thing. So they were very concerned.”
Comey also said that he had spoken to Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein about his general concerns regarding Trump’s interaction with the FBI.
Why Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation
When explaining the reasoning behind his decision to refrain from bringing Sessions into the loop, Comey said, as he did in his opening statement, that he believed Sessions was shortly going to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
He added during his testimony that the FBI was also aware of other facts that could make Sessions’ involvement in the investigation “problematic,” but that he couldn’t discuss those facts in an open hearing.
Comey’s statements indicate that there may be additional reasons, outside of Sessions’ already-reported contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, that Sessions ultimately recused himself.
- Associated Press/Andrew Harnik
Comey was ‘confused’ and ‘concerned’ about how the Clinton email investigation was handled
Comey said during testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee that Loretta Lynch, who was attorney general while the FBI was investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, had asked him torefer to the inquiry as a “matter” instead of an “investigation.” Lynch’s alleged request came during the 2016 election, and Comey said it sounded similar to the Clinton campaign’s language. He said that Lynch’s request “confused” and “concerned” him, and it also gave him “a queasy feeling.”
“That was one of the bricks in the load that led me to conclude I have to step away from the department if we’re to close this case credibly,” Comey said.
He also elaborated on his decision to publicly disclose the results of the investigation and said that it had been prompted in part by Lynch’s tarmac meeting with former president Bill Clinton. Comey added that he had done so in order to “protect the credibility” of the investigation.