Comey took Trump request to ‘let go’ of Flynn probe as a ‘direction’
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Former FBI director James Comey testified at a Senate intelligence hearing on Thursday about private conversations with the president, his abrupt firing and the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the US election.
On the eve of his much-anticipated testimony, Comey submitted a seven-page sworn statement to lawmakers detailing five private conversations with President Donald Trump. In one private exchange in the Oval Office, Comey said the president asked him to “let go” of an investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, a request Comey said he took as a “direction” from a sitting president.
Flynn resigned on February 13 over reports that he spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak about US sanctions imposed in late December over Russian interference in the US election. The White House said that he later misled the Trump administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, about the nature of his conversations with Kislyak and asked for his resignation.
Following an Oval Office briefing the day after Flynn resigned, Trump asked the other attendees to leave – including the vice president, the attorney general and several senior officials from the intelligence community.
“My impression was something big is about to happen,” Comey recalled.
“I want to talk about Mike Flynn,” Trump began, according to Comey’s written statement.
Trump said he did not think Flynn did anything wrong in his communications with Russian officials. “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’ … I did not say I would ‘let this go’,” Comey wrote.
Trump has denied asking Comey to drop the Flynn investigation. But Comey’s written testimony immediately raised the question of whether the president's alleged request to “let this go” could rise to the level of obstruction of justice, an impeachable offence. Legal experts disagree on this point.
Asked whether he himself felt that the exchange constituted obstruction, Comey replied: “It’s not for me to say whether my conversation with the president was an effort to obstruct.”
It is up to the special counsel for the Russia investigation, former FBI director Robert Mueller, to determine whether there was obstruction, he added.
"I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning,” Comey recounted. “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 offence."
But Comey said that, nevertheless, he took Trump’s statements as a “direction” from the president of the United States to drop the Flynn investigation.
“I took it as a direction. 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.”
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein asked Comey why he did not make it immediately clear that the request violated the FBI’s longstanding tradition of political independence. "Why didn't you stop and say, 'Mr. President, this is wrong'?" she asked.
"That's a great question," Comey replied. "Maybe if I were stronger I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation, I just took it in."
Feinstein also asked why Comey thought he was fired, and whether he thought it had to do with the Russia probe.
"Yes,” Comey said. “Because I've seen the president say so."
The New York Times reported that at a May 10 meeting in the Oval Office, Trump told Ambassador Sergei Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that firing Comey – who he described as “crazy, a real nut job” – had eased the “great pressure” that had been building up around him over the investigation into his team’s Russian contacts. Trump also cited the Russia probe while discussing Comey's dismissal in a May 11 interview with NBC's Lester Holt.
Comey said he would take the president "at his word" in believing that he was ultimately fired because of the Russia investigation.
“Something about the way I was conducting it, the president felt created pressure on him that he wanted to relieve," he said.
The loyalty oath
Comey’s written statement also described a January 27 dinner à deux at the White House that turned decidedly uncomfortable. Trump began by asking Comey whether he wanted to stay on as FBI director, “which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to”, Comey wrote.
Comey testified on Thursday that he thought, “Wait a minute, three times we've already, you’ve already asked me to stay or talked about me staying … he's looking to get something in exchange for granting my request to stay in the job.”
“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,” Comey recounted.
Finally, Trump took the blunt approach: “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
“I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed,” wrote Comey. “We simply looked at each other in silence.”
The conversation resumed before once again returning to the subject of loyalty. “You will always get honesty from me,” Comey said carefully.
“That’s what I want, honest loyalty,” the president said.
In a statement to the press following Comey’s Senate testimony, Trump’s private lawyer Marc Kasowitz denied the president had ever asked for loyalty in either “form or substance”.
The White House has repeatedly denied that Trump ever requested loyalty from Comey. In a May 12 tweet, Trump wrote: “James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
Comey testified on Thursday that it was this tweet that made him realise that there might be a way to independently corroborate his conversation with Trump: "[I]t occurred to me in the middle of the night: Holy cow, there might be tapes. And if there are tapes, it's not just my word against his."
Comey asked “a good friend” to share his memos with a reporter, adding that he thought doing so “might prompt the appointment of a special counsel” to investigate Russian election involvement.
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 12 mai 2017
Trump lawyer Kasowitz said Comey himself should come under scrutiny for leaking his notes on conversations with the president to the press.
"Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he leaked to friends his purported memos of these privileged conversations, one of which he testified was classified," Kasowitz said.
"We will leave it to the appropriate authorities to determine whether this leaks [sic] should be investigated along with all those others being investigated."
‘Lies, plain and simple’
Democratic Senator Mark Warner asked what had prompted Comey to start creating a written record of his interactions with the president.
Comey said that the unique nature of the situation, the sensitivity of the subjects discussed and “the nature of the person” had led him to start taking notes on his meetings with Trump.
“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.
"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 said the “shifting explanations” of his departure from the bureau “confused me and increasingly concerned me”. He was also troubled by reports that Trump had said that his firing had relieved the pressure from the Russia investigation.
"The administration then chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI by saying that the organisation was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader," Comey told the Senate committee.
"Those were lies, plain and simple."
Comey added: “The FBI is honest, the FBI strong, and the FBI is – and always will be – independent.”
Addressing his FBI colleagues, he said: “Thank you for standing watch.”
'Aggressive intelligence operations'
Asked whether he had any doubt that Russia meddled in the US election, Comey was unequivocal: “None,” he said.
“The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose, they did it with sophistication, they did it with overwhelming technical efforts – and it was an active-measures campaign driven from the top of that government.”
Comey said there was no longer any doubt about it. This is “a high-confidence judgment of the entire intelligence community”, he said.
Comey described Ambassador Kislyak as the chief of mission at a Russian embassy that employs a “robust cohort of intelligence officers” and pursues “very, very aggressive intelligence operations”, at least some of them active within the United States.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton asked Comey whether he personally believes Trump colluded with Russia ahead of the election.
"That's a question I don't think I should answer in an open setting," Comey said. “As I said, when I left, we did not have an investigation focused on President Trump. But that’s a question that will be answered by the investigation, I think.”
Comey testifies later on Thursday before members of Congress in a closed session in which confidential matters can be discussed.