WASHINGTON (AP) — Former FBI Director James Comey accused the Trump administration Thursday of spreading “lies, plain and simple” about him and the FBI in the aftermath of his abrupt firing, in dramatic testimony that exposed deep distrust between the president and the veteran lawman and threatened to undermine Donald Trump’s presidency.
Comey disputed the Trump administration’s justification for his firing, declaring the administration “defamed him and more importantly the FBI,” as he opened his much anticipated first public telling of his relationship with Trump. Comey described discomfort about their one-on-one conversations, saying he decided he immediately needed to document the discussions in memos.
“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, so I thought it really important to document,” Comey said. “I knew there might come a day when I might need a record of what happened not only to defend myself but to protect the FBI.”
Comey made his comments as the packed hearing got underway, bringing Washington and parts of the country to a halt as all eyes were glued on televisions showing the hearing. He immediately dove into the heart of the fraught political controversy around his firing as he elaborated on written testimony delivered Wednesday. In that testimony he had already disclosed that Trump demanded his “loyalty” and directly pushed him to “lift the cloud” of investigation by declaring publicly the president was not the target of the FBI probe into his campaign’s Russia ties.
Comey also testified in his written testimony that Trump, in a strange private encounter near the grandfather clock in the Oval Office, pushed him to end his investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Comey also confirmed Trump’s claim that he had told him three times the president was not directly under investigation.
The Republican National Committee worked to lessen any damage from the hearing, trying to undermine Comey’s credibility by pointing to a past instance where the FBI had had to clean up his testimony to Congress. And Trump himself was expected to dispute Comey’s claims that he demanded loyalty and asked the FBI director to drop the investigation into Flynn, according to a person close to the president’s legal team who demanded anonymity because of not being authorized to discuss legal strategy.
Trump has not yet publicly denied the specifics of Comey’s accounts but has broadly challenged his credibility, tweeting last month Comey “better hope there are no ‘tapes’” of the conversations.
But it was a Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who asked the question that many Republicans have raised in the weeks since Comey’s firing as one media leak followed another revealing Comey’s claims about Trump’s inappropriate interactions with him.
Alluding to the Oval Office meeting where Comey says Trump asked him to pull back the Flynn probe, Feinstein asked: “Why didn’t you stop and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong,’?”
“That’s a great question,” Comey said. “Maybe if I were stronger I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation I just took it in.”
Comey was also asked if he believed he was fired because of the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election as well as Russia’s ties with Trump’s campaign.
“Yes,” Comey said. “Because I’ve seen the president say so.”
Comey described his concerns that Trump was trying to create a “patronage” relationship with him at a dinner where Trump asked him if he wanted to keep his job.
“The statue of justice has a blindfold on because you’re not supposed to be peeking out to see whether your patron is pleased or not with what you’re doing,” Comey said.
Senate intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr is leading the committee’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, which is proceeding even as a special counsel recently appointed by the Justice Department also investigates.
“We will establish the facts separate from rampant speculation and lay them out for the American people to make their own judgment,” Burr said. “Only then will we be able to move forward and put this issue to rest.”