Former FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee he believed President Donald Trump ordered him to drop the probe into former national security advisor Michael Flynn when they spoke in February.
In his prepared testimony, Comey recalled that, at that Oval Office meeting, the president 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 took it as a direction,” Comey told the Senate hearing Thursday. “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.”
Responding to a question from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who asked if he considered it a “order” to drop the investigation, Comey said yes.
Comey did not drop the investigation into Flynn. Trump fired him on May 9.
Comey’s testimony on Thursday, based largely on written records he made after one-on-one conversations with Trump from January to April, casts light on Trump’s behavior with the former FBI director and the president’s possible motives for firing Comey. Trump abruptly ousted Comey last month amid an FBI probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
Trump’s outside counsel, Marc Kasowitz, said in a statement Wednesday that the president feels “completely and totally vindicated” and “is eager to continue to move forward with his agenda.” And Kasowitz highlighted that Comey says he told Trump that the president was not personally under investigation.
Partly at issue is whether Trump’s comments to Comey represent obstruction of justice. Any such charge would rest heavily on the exact wording of Trump’s comment, according to Columbia University law professor John Coffee.
Even if Trump’s comments cross a legal line, it’s unlikely such a charge could be brought against a sitting president, he said.
“It’s generally believed that you cannot indict a sitting president, because that would paralyze the government,” said Coffee. “And because impeachment is the constitutional procedure created to remove a president.”
Coffee said an obstruction charge is also unlikely from the current Justice Department.
“Any U.S. attorney who brings an indictment can be overruled by the attorney general — even if the case is meritorious,” he said.
Why Comey remained silent so long
Comey has been criticized by lawmakers in both parties for not publicizing his interactions with Trump before the president fired him.
Comey said he and the bureau’s leadership decided not to tell the investigative team about Trump’s request about Flynn, because they did not wish to “infect” the investigation. They also chose not to tell Attorney General Jeff Sessions because they expected him to recuse himself from the Russia probe, which he subsequently did.
Aside from the Flynn events, Comey confirmed much of the account of his relationship with Trump that has emerged across the news media since his firing. Comey said he wrote records of his conversations with Trump “immediately” after they took place, something he did not do with Trump’s predecessor President Barack Obama, because he was concerned about Trump’s conduct.
Comey: I didn’t want ‘patronage relationship’
Comey said he went to a one-on-one dinner with Trump in January, where the president asked him to stay on as FBI director, even though Comey had already said he intended to remain in the job. He interpreted it as Trump trying to have him “ask for his job and create some sort of patronage relationship,” which “concerned [him] greatly.”
Trump later said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” Comey said he did not “move, speak, or change his facial expression in any way in the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.”
Later in the dinner, according to Comey, Trump again said “I need loyalty.” Comey replied that he would give “honest loyalty,” to which Trump said, “that’s what I want, honestly loyalty.”
Comey testified that they may have interpreted the phrase “honest loyalty” differently. The New York Times first reported this account.
Trump wasn’t under personal investigation by FBI
Comey also said he told Trump he was not personally under investigation, backing up what Trump has said previously. In a March 30 phone call, Comey says Trump asked him to “get that fact out.”
In that call, shortly after Comey first publicly confirmed the FBI investigation, Comey said Trump called him and described the Russia probe as a “cloud” over his administration.
“He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to ‘lift the cloud,'” the testimony says.
In an April 11 phone call, Trump again asked Comey to “get out” that he was not personally under investigation, according to the former FBI chief. Comey told him that the White House should contact the Department of Justice about that.
Comey’s testimony says:
He said he would do that and added, “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.” I did not reply or ask him what he meant by “that thing.” I said only that the way to handle it was to have the White House Counsel call the Acting Deputy Attorney General. He said that was what he would do and the call ended.
That was the last time I spoke with President Trump.