Comey: Trump never asked to stop Russian investigation

Everything you need to know about Comeys three-hour testimony before Congress

Jonathan Ernst—Reuters
Former FBI Director James Comey is sworn in prior to testifying before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election on Capitol Hill in Washington

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Former FBI Director James Comey testified under oath on Thursday to the Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.), answering outstanding questions about Russia’s involvement in the presidential election and his relationship with President Donald Trump prior to his dismissal on May 9. The hearing was part of the committee’s broader investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election. Comey had also testified before the same committee in March. “Today is your opportunity to set the record straight,” Burr said to Comey as he opened the hearing Thursday morning. “I appreciate your candor. I feel that it is important as we investigate the possible involvement of Russia in the 2016 presidential elections.”During the first line of questioning, Comey said he had no doubt that the Russian government had attempted to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, but that he had seen no indication that they had actually influenced or changed any votes. BURR: Director, did the special counsel’s office review and/or edit your written testimony? COMEY: No. BURR: Do you have any doubt that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 elections? COMEY: None. BURR: Do you have any doubt that the Russian government was behind the intrusions in the D triple C systems and the subsequent leaks of that information? COMEY: No, no doubt. BURR: Do you have any doubt the Russian government was behind the cyber intrusion in the state voter files? COMEY: No.BURR: Are you confident that no votes cast in the 2016 presidential election were altered?COMEY: I am confident. When I left as Director, I saw no indication of that whatsoever.BURR: Did the president, at any time, ask you to stop the FBI investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election?COMEY: Not to my understanding, no.BURR: Did anyone working for this administration, including the Justice Department, ask you to stop the investigation?COMEY: No.In written testimony released Wednesday afternoon, Comey recalled multiple in-person and telephone exchanges with the Trump, and indicated that he felt “uneasy” with the cozy relationship the president was attempting to form with him and his agency. The FBI reports to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.In his opening statement on Thursday, Comey stated, “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.”MEDIA REPORTS ABOUT TRUMP INVESTIGATION WERE “DEAD WRONG”Comey testified that he personally assured the president that he was not being investigated by the FBI for involvement with Russia, but refused to let the public know this fact even after multiple media reports indicated otherwise.In questioning with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) he called media reports, including a New York Times article, alluding to wiretaps and collusion within Trump Tower “dead wrong.”COTTON: On February 14th 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 as an inaccurate story. Would it be fair to characterize that story as almost entirely wrong? COMEY: Yes.—-LANKFORD: OK. You had mentioned before about some news stories and news accounts. Without having to go into all of the names and specific times and to be able to dip into all of that. Have there been news accounts about the Russian investigation or collusion about the whole event or as you read the story you were wrong about how wrong they got the facts? COMEY: Yes, there have been many, many stories based on — well, lots of stuff but about Russia that are dead wrong.In a press conference hours after Comey’s testimony, Trump’s outside legal council Marc Kazowtiz, was quick to reference these remarks, criticize the press and point out that the president was not under investigation. “Contrary to numerous false press accounts leading up to today’s hearing, Mr. Comey has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told the President privately: The President was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference. He also admitted that there is no evidence that a single vote changed as a result of any Russian interference,” Kazowitz said.’THE CLOUD’In written testimony, Comey says he first told Trump that he was not under investigation during a January 6 briefing at Trump Tower in New York. After months of false media reports and a private conversation about Michael Flynn, Trump made two separate phone calls to Comey asking him to “lift the cloud” of the Russian investigation. In questioning with Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) Comey said he understood the president to be specifically asking him to tell the public that he, personally, was not under investigation, rather than to stop the entire investigation.FEINSTEIN: You describe two phone calls that you received from president trump. One on March 30th and one on April 11. He, quote, described the Russia investigation as a cloud that was impairing his ability, end quote, as president, and asked you, quote, to lift the cloud, end quote. How did you interpret that? What did you believe he wanted you to do? COMEY: I interpreted that as he was frustrated that the Russia investigation was taking up so much time and energy. I think he meant of the executive branch, but in the public square in general. It was making it difficult for him to focus on other priorities of his. But what he asked me was actually narrowing than that. I think what he meant by the cloud — and, again, I could be wrong — but the entire investigation is taking up oxygen and making it hard for me to focus on what I want to focus on. The ask was to get it out that I, the president, am not personally under investigation.Comey’s last personal conversation with Trump before he was fired on May 9 was the second of those two phone calls.When asked by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) if he thought it was unreasonable for a president to want that ‘cloud’ of doubt lifted, Comey replied, “I think that’s a reasonable point of view. The concern would be, obviously, because as that boomerang comes back it’s going to be a very big deal because there will be a duty to correct.”DEBATE ABOUT “A DUTY TO CORRECT”The concept of a “duty to correct” is familiar to some law enforcement and legal professionals, but not a commonly understood term. Joseph Lewis, who spent 27 years with the federal bureau before retiring in 2004 as Deputy Assistant Director, told the Washington Post, “Once you make that a story to the public, if it turns out that it’s not accurate or not true, then depending on how public you went with it, then you have to go back and try to clean things up.” That would mean that if Comey told the public that Trump was not under investigation, but at some point new evidence surfaced that puts Trump into focus, Comey would have a sense of obligation to correct the public record – fueling suspicion that he was under investigation, prior to investigators knowing the whole truth.According to Comey’s accounts, it would appear the president did not like Comey’s reasoning, and wanted to relieve public doubt about his involvement with any Russian election interference.The action of firing Comey is not wrong itself, even if it was because Comey did not want to publicly exonerate Trump — unless of course he did so to hide or prevent something bigger, such as the Russia investigation as a whole. LEAKED INFORMATIONSenators also questioned Comey’s decision not to publicly comment or leak information that would have lifted concerns about the president’s ties to the high-profile Russian hacking scandal. “This investigation is full of leaks left and right, we learn more from the newspapers than we do from our open hearings,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). “Did you ever wonder why, of all the things in this investigation, the only thing that’s never been leaked is the fact that the president was not personally under investigation? Despite the fact that both Democrats and Republicans and the leadership of Congress knew that and have known that for weeks?”Comey responded that he did not know the answer to that, claiming “I find that matters that are briefed to the gang of eight [Senate Intelligence Committee] are pretty tightly held in my experience.”Later in the hearing, Comey disclosed that after his firing in mid-May he shared an unclassified memo with a “good friend” who was a professor at Columbia University. He asked that friend to share that memo, which detailed his Oval Office meeting with Trump when the president said he “hoped” he could let the Flynn investigation go, to the press. COLLINS (R-ME): Finally, did you show copies of your memos to anyone outside of the department of justice? COMEY: Yes. COLLINS: And to whom did you show copies? COMEY: I asked — the president tweeted on Friday after I got fired that I better hope there’s not tapes. 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 a tape. My judgment 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. Didn’t do it myself for a variety of reasons. I asked him to because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. I asked a close friend to do it.Comey said that he felt compelled to document his interactions with the president, and did so immediately after each conversation; something he had not done under former Pres. Barack Obama. He told the Senate committee that he had drafted those memos in a way that they did not include classified information, so that they might be able to be more easily reviewed and discussed in an open setting down the line. AN AWKWARD RELATIONSHIPComey’s testimony detailed awkward moments between Trump and his former FBI head, which may have contributed to his eventual firing. He told Senators on Thursday that he felt “uneasy” with the relationship Trump wanted to form with him, indicating that he thought the FBI should remain mostly autonomous, though he understood that he could be fired by the president for any reason or no reason at all.In a private dinner at the White House on January 27, Comey says Trump asked him, for a third time since they had met, if he would like to stay in his position as Director.

COMEY: My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch.Comey says that Trump told him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” Comey recalled in his written testimony,COMEY: I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.At the end of the dinner, COMEY: He then said, “I need loyalty.” I replied, “You will always get honesty from me.” He paused and then said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” I paused, and then said, “You will get that from me.” As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase “honest loyalty” differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further. The term – honest loyalty – had helped end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he should expect.On Thursday, Comey told the Senators, “I tried to hold the line, but it got very awkward.”COMEY: What made me uneasy is that at that point, I’m the Director of the FBI. The reason that this Congress created a ten year term is so that the Director is not feeling that they are serving with political loyalty owed to any one person.”The statue of justice has a blindfold on because you’re not supposed to be peaking out to see if your patron is pleased or not with what you are doing. It should be about the facts and the law.After the meeting Comey voiced concerns to Sessions, expressing that he hoped to have the AG act as a buffer with the White House, COMEY: I took the opportunity to implore the Attorney General to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me. I told the AG that what had just happened – him being asked to leave while the FBI Director, who reports to the AG, remained behind – was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply.During oral testimony Comey also recalled indicating to Session, “I report to you, it’s very important that you are between me and the White House.” However, the president and Comey had two more one-on-one conversations, which Trump initiated.Comey, unknowingly, may have set the precedent for those one-and-one meetings with the president. During their first meeting on January 7, an Intelligence Community leader decided to have Comey brief Trump alone for a portion of the material that they felt was more sensitive, COMEY: The Director of National Intelligence asked that I personally do this portion of the briefing because I was staying in my position and because the material implicated the FBI’s counter-intelligence responsibilities.THE MICHAEL FLYNN INVESTIGATIONSenators also examined Comey’s concern around a conversation the president had with him about ex-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and an investigation into his conversations with a Russian Ambassador.

COMEY: The President then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, “He is a good guy and has been through a lot.” He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President. He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied only that “he is a good guy.” (In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my term at FBI.) I did not say I would “let this go.”Comey documented that he told other FBI leaders about the incident, but that they decided not to “infect the investigation team with the request.” Oklahoma’s James Lankford pointed out that Trump, an avid and frequent Twitter user, has been extremely vocal in the public arena about the Russia investigation.LANKFORD: Well, is there any question that the president is not real fond of this investigation? I can think of multiple 140-word character expressions that he’s publicly expressed he’s not fond of the investigation. I heard you refer to before trying to keep the agents away from any comment that the president may have made. Quite frankly, the president has informed around 6 billion people that he’s not real fond of this investigation. Do you think there’s a difference in that? COMEY: Yes. There’s a big difference in kicking superior officers out of the oval office, looking the FBI director in the eye and saying I hope you let this go. I think if agents as good as they are heard the president of the United States did that, there’s a real risk of a chilling effect on their work. That’s why we kept it so tight.LANKFORD: OK. You had mentioned before about some news stories and news accounts…[as documented above]Opponents of Trump were quick to point out that the interaction in the Oval Office could smell of an obstruction of justice, a chargeable and serious offense for a new president. “Under oath, James Comey laid out a foundation for obstruction of justice charges against [the president]—this should not be minimized,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) tweeted, along with a video further explaining his opinion, after the hearing on Thursday.A charge would require that Trump took meaningful steps to influence, intimidate, or impede the Michael Flynn investigation. Senators explored the issue, beginning with Chairman Burr:BURR: In your estimation, was general Flynn at that time in serious legal jeopardy, and in addition to that, do you sense that the president was trying to obstruct justice or just seek for a way for Mike Flynn to save face, given that he had already been fired? COMEY: General Flynn at that point in time was in legal jeopardy. There was an open FBI criminal investigation of his statements in connection with the Russian contacts, and the contacts themselves, and so that was my assessment at the time. I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct. I took it as a 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.—-Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) continued the questioning, focusing on Trump’s use of the word “hope” as described by Comey.RISCH: He said, I hope. Now, like me, you probably did hundreds of cases, maybe thousands of cases, charging people with criminal offenses and, of course, you have knowledge of the thousands of cases out there where people have been charged. 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? COMEY: I don’t know well enough to answer. The reason I keep saying his words is I took it as a direction. RISCH: Right. COMEY: I mean, this is a president of the United States with me alone saying I hope this. 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. RISCH: You may have taken it as a direction but that’s not what he said. COMEY: Correct. RISCH: He said, I hope. COMEY: Those are his exact words, correct. RISCH: You don’t know of anyone ever being charged for hoping something, is that a fair statement? COMEY: I don’t as I sit here.WHY WAS COMEY FIRED?One question that lingers is what was the motivation behind the Comey fire? The FBI Director, while quasi-independent, serves entirely at the will of the president – who can fire him/her for any reason or no reason at all.”The president can fire the Director of the FBI, the argument is – does it say something more broadly?” says Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State. We’ll explore that question in a later article.Ultimately, the Russian investigation is now assigned to a special prosecutor, former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.”One message I hope all Americans will take home is recognizing how significant Russian interference in our election was,” said Committee Vice-Chairman Mark Warner (R-V.A.) after the hearing on Thursday.”This is nowhere near the end of our investigation,” Burr stated.