Many state residents pushed pause today to hear for themselves from James Comey, the former FBI director at the center of a Washington firestorm. Two and a half hours of testimony boiled down to this: who do you trust — the FBI director the president fired or the uber litigator attorney the president hired? Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron monitored the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings. Michael, a lot to digest.
Aron: That’s right, Mary Alice, there were no smoking guns today, no bombshells. Comey provided the Senate Intelligence Committee with a lot of interesting details but not much beyond what’s been reported in the press already.
He did say he didn’t trust President Trump to be honest and that’s why he started taking notes after their first meeting on Jan. 6 at Trump Tower.
Sen. Mark Warner: You’ve had extensive experience at the Department of Justice and at the FBI, you’ve worked under presidents of both parties, what was it about that meeting that led you to determine that you needed to start putting down a written record?
Comey: A combination of things. I think the circumstances, the subject matter and the person I was interacting with. Circumstances, first I was alone with the president of the United States, or the president-elect, soon to be president. The subject matter I was talking about, matters that touch on the FBI’s core responsibility and that relate to the president, president-elect, personally. And then the nature of the person. I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting and so I thought it really important to document. That combination of things I’ve never experienced before, but it led me to believe I got to write it down, and I got to write it down in a very detailed way.
What really unnerved Comey was that the president invited him to dinner at the White House and then seemed to try to get Comey to ask to keep his job.
Comey: So I’m sitting there thinking, what a minute, three times you’ve already asked me to stay or talked about me staying. My common sense, again I could be wrong, but my common sense told me what’s going on here is he’s looking to get something in exchange for granting my request to stay in the job.
Warner: Again, we all understand, I was a governor, I had people work for me but this constant request, again quoting you, him saying that he, despite your independence, he coming back to I need loyalty, I expect loyalty. Had you ever had those kind of request before from anyone else you worked for in the government?
Comey: No, and what made me uneasy was at that point, the director of the FBI. The reason that Congress created a ten-year term is so that the director is not feeling as if they’re serving with political loyalty owed to any particular person. The statue of justice has a blindfold on because you’re not supposed to be peeking out to see whether your patron is please or not with what you’re doing. It should be about the facts and the law. That’s why I became FBI director, to be in that kind of position, so that’s why I was so uneasy.”
Comey said he had no evidence of Trump personally colluding with the Russians. He also said there was no evidence of Russian vote tampering.
The central issue now is whether Trump’s comments about the Russia investigation constitute an obstruction of justice.
A Republican senator honed in on Trump’s saying to Comey he “hoped” the FBI could go easy on Michael Flynn, the fired national security adviser.
Sen. Jim Risch: He did not direct you to let it go?
Comey: Not in his words, no.
Risch: He did not order you to let it go?
Comey: Again, those words are not an order, no.
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. And the reason I keep saying his words is 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 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 took it as a direction, but that’s not what he said.
Risch: He said “I hope.”
Comey: Those are his exact words, correct.
Another Republican accused Comey of leaking his contemporaneous notes to the press, calling them “privileged information” that really should be treated as a government document.
The committee went into closed session this afternoon.
Ninety minutes after the public session, Trump’s personal lawyer read a statement saying Comey’s testimony only reinforced the notion that Trump has done nothing wrong.
Marc Kasowitz: The president never in form or substance directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone, including the president never suggested that Mr. Comey “let Flynn go.”
Trump’s lawyer went on to accuse Comey of being a leaker and suggested the authorities might want to investigate Comey.