During what may be one of the most widely viewed congressional hearings in recent history (with multiple bars in the nation's capital opening early to host watch parties), former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey testified Thursday morning before the Senate Intelligence Committee for the first time since he was fired last month by President Donald Trump.
In his opening statement, which was posted online yesterday, Comey confirmed that Trump asked him to drop the investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn (a claim Trump himself has previously denied), and that Trump expressed to Comey his expectation of loyalty. (Comey added that he spoke with Trump more than four times more often in the president's first few months in office than he spoke with President Barack Obama in the three years he served under his administration.) The debate over whether or not Comey's statement provides solid evidence of obstruction of justice on Trump's part—an impeachable offense—largely splits along party lines; even legal experts are divided, Vox found.
In anticipation of Comey's testimony, the Republican National Committee went on the offensive, going as far as to offer suggested tweets bashing the former FBI director yesterday. "The aim at the RNC is to depict Comey as a disgruntled former employee out to destroy the president who fired him," Politico reports. Meanwhile, White House aides were doing their best to keep the president busy during the hearing, according to Politico, to prevent him from tweeting anything about Comey or the Russia probe that could later be used as evidence in a criminal investigation.
In a nearly three-hour-long session, Comey fielded questions on his firing, the memos he created after meeting with Trump, and whether or not the president's actions during those meetings amount to obstruction of justice.
In case you missed the political theater, here were some hearing highlights:
- On his firing: Comey kicked off his testimony on Thursday by telling the committee that he was "confused and concerned" by the White House's explanation for his firing. When asked whether he knew why exactly he was fired, Comey responded, "I know I was fired because of something about the way I was conducting the Russia investigation was in some way putting pressure on him, in some way irritating him, and he decided to fire me because of that. I can't go farther than that." Comey added that, while Trump has the authority to fire the FBI director at any time for any reason at all, "the administration then chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI" by claiming the agency was poorly led and in a state of disarray. "Those were lies, plain and simple," Comey said.
- On Trump's inappropriate requests: In response to questions from Marco Rubio (R-Florida) about whether or not Comey told the president that his conduct was inappropriate, Comey admitted that he was too stunned. "Maybe if I were stronger I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in," he said, but later admitted that he might have been reluctant to stand up to the president even if it had occurred to him. (Therein lie the risks when the boundaries between the executive branch and institutions like the FBI become blurred.) Comey stated that he did tell the attorney general and deputy attorney general that Trump's behavior was inappropriate, but that the FBI didn't relay details to the White House because Trump's Flynn request was "of investigative interest to us," Comey said.
- On Comey's memos: When Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Virginia) asked Comey why he felt compelled to document his interactions with the president, Comey responded that it was a combination of circumstances, subject matter, and the president himself. "I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting," he said.
- On Russian interference in the election: The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle, Comey confirmed to the committee. "There is no fuzz on that," Comey said. "It's not a close call. That happened, that's about as un-fake as you can get."
- On the Steele Dossier: Asked by Chairman Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) if the FBI was able to confirm any criminal allegations in the dossier, Comey dodged the question, stating that it was "not a question I can answer in an open setting."
- On Trump's loyalty request: "My common sense told me that he's looking to get something in exchange for my request to stay in the job."
- On the alleged oval office tapes: "Lordy, I hope there are tapes," Comey told the committee members. Indeed, it was the potential existence of those tapes that prompted the former FBI director to make the existence of his memos public. Comey said he woke up in the middle of the night after Trump suggested there might be tapes of their oval office meeting, and decided to ask a close friend—a professor at Columbia Law School—to share the content of the memo with a reporter, hoping that the report would lead to the appointment of a special counsel. (Shortly thereafter, the Columbia Law School faculty webpage crashed.)
- On Attorney General Jeff Sessions: Susan Collins (R-Maine) followed up by asking if Comey told Sessions about Trump's Flynn request in particular. Comey responded that he did not because the FBI expected Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. "We were also aware of facts that I can't discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic," Comey said.
- On obstruction of justice: Burr asked Comey if he thought Trump's behavior amounted to obstruction of justice; Comey responded that, while he thought Trump's request to let the Flynn investigation go was a "very disturbing thing, very concerning," whether or not Trump intended to obstruct justice was "a conclusion I am sure the special counsel will work towards to try and understand what the intention was there and whether that was an offense." James Risch (R-Idaho) asked Comey if he was aware of a case in which an individual was charged with obstruction of justice for saying they "hoped" for an outcome. Comey responded by saying that "I took it as a direction. It is 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."