High Drama as James Comey Testifies Before Senate Panel

High Drama as James Comey Testifies Before Senate Panel
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In riveting testimony that captured the attention of Washington and the rest of the nation Thursday morning, former FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he believed President Trump directed him to end investigations into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and that he carefully documented his conversations with Trump because he believed the commander-in-chief could potentially lie about the nature of those interactions.  

Comey’s testimony, the seminal public moment thus far in the myriad investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, took just three hours but provided an opportunity for Comey, in the spotlight as the sole witness before the committee, to establish his version of events surrounding the investigations and his own dismissal. Spectators lined a hallway stretching into two separate Senate office buildings to witness the action live, some queuing up as early as 4 a.m. to earn a spot in the small committee room.  

Comey authorized the release of his written testimony Wednesday afternoon, which detailed his interactions with Trump, and thus took his opening statement -- carried live across every cable news channel and broadcast network -- as an opportunity to say he was confused and frustrated by the circumstances and explanations surrounding his dismissal a month ago.  

“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. “Those were lies, plain and simple, and I am sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them and I’m so sorry that the American people were told them.”

Comey made no attempt to hide his anger at the way he’d been summarily dismissed, but afterwards it was as if he’d gotten something off his chest. For the rest of the hearing he was careful and dispassionate in his answers. He made little effort to parry Republican senators who wanted him to concede—which he did—that Trump was not the subject of a criminal investigation, did not offer any opinion on whether Trump’s attempts to have Comey ease up on Flynn constituted obstruction of justice, and on a couple of occasions he prefaced answers by giving Trump the benefit of the doubt, saying that he wanted to be “fair” to the president.

Democrats attempted to drill down on the question of whether the pressure Trump tried to exert on the Flynn investigation went further than poor judgment. Meanwhile, Republican senators tried to establish that the conversations with Trump were less significant than Comey had taken them to be at the time. Senators across the board attempted to zero in on Russia’s actions into the election, which are at the heart of their investigation. Comey insisted that Russia’s actions were ongoing: “They’ll be back,” he said.

He also faced questions about former Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the Department of Justice’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, expressing his concern with the way Lynch had directed him to refer to the investigation as simply a “matter” and her meeting with former President Bill Clinton, both of which he said prompted him to address the matter publicly in July 2016.  

Comey also testified that after an Oval Office meeting in February, Trump asked all associates, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to leave the room before telling the then-FBI director that he hoped Comey could “see his way to letting this go” in reference to investigations into Flynn.

“I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct justice,” Comey said. “I took it as very disturbing thing, very concerning, but that’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel will work towards, to try and understand what the intention was there, and whether that’s an offense.”

Comey also made clear that he was taken aback when Trump tweeted about the possibility of “tapes” of their conversation in the Oval Office, and that he directed a “friend” -- a Columbia University law  professor -- to leak Comey’s written account of his conversation with Trump to news outlets, hoping that it would spur the appointment of a special counsel and potentially lead to the release of any alleged tapes.

“I’ve seen the tweet about tapes,” Comey said. “Lordy, do I hope there are tapes.”

The ranking senators on the panels, Republican Chairman Richard Burr and Democratic Vice Chairman Mark Warner, attempted at the start of the hearing to establish the independence and bipartisan nature of their committee’s work. In his opening statement, Burr said he hoped the questions would stay “above politics and partisanship,” and he then asked Comey pointed questions about the certainty of conclusions regarding Russia’s interference in the election, as well as Trump’s behavior and whether Flynn is in “legal jeopardy.”

Warner, for his part, said the hearing was not about “relitigating the election,” and drilled down on the details of Comey’s interactions with Trump. He asked for justification for documenting the conversations with the president, something Comey had not done when interacting with Presidents Obama or Bush. Comey said the circumstances, in one-on-one discussions, and the sensitive nature of the material were factors. He also questioned Trump’s motivation, saying Trump’s “nature” prompted his documentation.

“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document,” Comey said.

Several senators on the panel, including Republicans Marco Rubio and Jim Risch, didn’t cast doubt on the veracity of Trump’s comments to Comey in the Oval Office, but attempted to downplay the significance of what the president told the FBI director. Under questioning from Rubio, Comey confirmed that Trump was speaking specifically about Flynn, not about broader FBI investigations. Risch focused on Trump saying he hoped Comey could let the investigation go, and asked whether anyone had ever been prosecuted for obstruction of justice for saying they hoped for an outcome. Comey said he hadn’t, but made clear his perspective on Trump’s comments:

“I took it as a direction. It’s the president of the United States, with me alone, saying ‘I hope this.’ I took it as what he wanted me to do.”

Though the hearing contained numerous detailed recollections and accounts from Comey, it lacked any definitive accounting of wrongdoing by the president. Comey deflected multiple questions about the nature of the FBI investigation, saying he could not discuss it in an open, unclassified setting. Those questions included one about Sessions’ involvement before and after his recusal from the Russia investigation, whether Flynn was central to the investigation’s focus, specific intelligence matters he had briefed Trump on, and, when asked directly by Sen. Tom Cotton, whether he believed Trump had colluded with Russians in the election.

Comey appeared again before the committee Thursday afternoon in a closed, classified session to potentially address those and other matters.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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