Fired FBI director James Comey appeared Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, delivering an unvarnished account of President Trump’s efforts to influence the FBI investigation into disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
That wasn’t all Comey discussed in his testimony, though. He suggested that the FBI was investigating whether the president himself had colluded with the Russian government to influence the election, whether Jeff Sessions was involved and whether there was any validity to the infamous dossier.
Contrary to Trump allies’ insistence that this was all a big, fat #NothingBurger, there were in fact several revelations that should concern the president, his attorney general and members of his campaign.
Trump is almost certainly under investigation for obstruction of justice.
Comey told the Senate committee on Thursday that Trump insisted on a closed-door meeting in which he repeatedly shared with the then-FBI director his “hope” that Comey could let go of the criminal investigation into Flynn. He said he immediately thought the president’s words were of “investigative interest.”
Comey demurred when asked directly if he believed the conversation constituted obstruction of justice in a legal sense. “I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct,” Comey said. But he added that he was confident the recently appointed special counsel, Robert Mueller, would be looking into the question. “I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning. But that’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel will work toward, to try and understand what the intention was there and whether that’s an offense,” Comey said.
It sure sounds like Trump is also being investigated for collusion.
Republican Sen. Tom Cotton got to ask the question everyone wants answered: “Do you believe Donald Trump colluded with Russia?”
“That’s a question I don’t think I should answer in an open setting,” Comey replied. “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.”
The FBI was aware of incriminating evidence against Sessions, too.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden noted that in the written remarks Comey provided to the committee Wednesday, the former FBI head said he had good reason to believe Attorney General Jeff Sessions would recuse himself from the Russia probe several weeks before Sessions actually did so. “What was it about the attorney general’s own interactions with the Russians or his behavior with regard to the investigation that would have led the entire leadership of the FBI to make this decision?” Wyden wanted to know.
“Our judgment, as I recall, was that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons,” Comey answered. “We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic. And so we were convinced and, in fact, I think we had already heard that the career people were recommending that he recuse himself, that he was not going to be in contact with Russia-related matters much longer. That turned out to be the case.”
The bureau was investigating the Steele dossier.
The FBI is or was attempting to confirm explosive allegations contained in an unverified dossier, authored during the campaign by a former British intelligence agent named Christopher Steele on behalf of Trump’s rivals. In addition to the eye-popping claim that the Russian government was blackmailing Trump with an explicit videotape, the document included allegations that Trump campaign officials met with emissaries of the Russian government to hammer out an agreement: that Russia would provide damaging emails it hacked from the DNC and the Clinton campaign to WikiLeaks in exchange for assurances from Trump that he would not discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine during the campaign.
Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked Comey point-blank if he could confirm any criminal allegations described in the Steele dossier. Comey answered by confirming, as he intimated in his opening statement, that the FBI was investigating the document. “Mr. Chairman, I don’t think that’s a question I can answer in an open setting because it goes into the details of the investigation,” he said.
Comey arranged to have his personal memos leaked to the press.
Comey freely admitted that he provided his memos – which he said he considered personal memorializations, not government documents – to the media via an intermediary in the hopes that the revelation that Trump tried to strong-arm him into dropping the Flynn investigation would trigger the appointment of a special counsel. The decision to provide the documents to the media, he said, was motivated by Trump’s tweet that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey said on Thursday, inviting the president to release them if they exist.
Comey believed Trump would lie about their interactions.
Perhaps the least surprising revelation to emerge from the three-hour hearing was that the former FBI director believes Trump to be a liar who would not hesitate to lie to the public about Comey. Questioned about why he took notes on the nine one-on-one conversations he had with President Trump, the former FBI director was blunt: “I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting.”
That fear, Comey said, “led me to believe I’ve got to write it down. … I knew there might come a day when I would need a record of what would happen, not just to defend myself but to defend the FBI and our integrity as an institution and the independence of our investigative function.”