Closed Ex-FBI chief Comey testifies to US Senate: as it happened

James Comey

Former FBI director James Comey’s first appearance on Capitol Hill since his abrupt ousting a month ago marks one of the most consequential congressional hearings in years. Critics accuse Mr Trump of attempting to obstruct justice and make comparisons to the Watergate scandal that toppled Richard Nixon. Our DC bureau correspondents followed the testimony and the Senate intelligence committee questioning as it unfolded.

Key points

  • Comey said he took the Trump request to drop a Mike Flynn investigation as a “direction”. He later quoted Henry II, saying the gist of the request was who will rid me of this meddlesome priest
  • Comey testified that Trump and others in the administration lied when they said FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey
  • Discussing the Trump suggestion that there were tapes of their conversations, Comey said “Lordy, I hope there are tapes”
  • Comey acknowledged he orchestrated a leak about his Trump conversations in hope of triggering a special counsel appointment.
  • Read the account of the hearing here


Setting up

Before James Comey’s testimony, recall that James Clapper said Donald Trump’s scandals are worse than Watergate


For a recap of James Comey’s prepared testimony, it is dissected here


Obstruction of justice or not?

As former FBI director Comey fields questions from lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee the key question hanging over the hearing will be whether Mr Comey believes Donald Trump was trying to obstruct justice in asking him to drop the inquiry into Mike Flynn.

Much of Mr Comey’s preliminary statement, which was released yesterday, confirmed earlier media reports on his interactions with the president, while adding plenty of colour. But it did not answer that question.


Burr kicks off

Richard Burr, the Republican chair of the Intelligence Committee, has kicked the hearing off


One thing to watch today: how well chairman Richard Burr and Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat, do in maintaining their bipartisan approach to the controversy. Both men have made it a point to do so, far more successfully than in the House


“Today is your opportunity to set the record straight,” Burr tells Comey, addressing him as Jim.


“People need to hear your side of the story, just as they need to hear the president’s description of events,” Burr continues

https://twitter.com/SenatorBurr/status/872821993686654976


The Senate intelligence committee’s investigation has been picking up momentum in recent weeks. Committee members are getting regular updates, usually at least once a week, and have nine full time staffers devoted to the task


Speaking truth to power

Democrat Mark Warner says this hearing is happening because a “foreign adversary” – Russia – attacked the US at home, not by guns or missiles but by seeking to hijack the election.

He tells Comey they may not always have agreed but he describes him as a “straight shooter” who is willing to speak truth to power. That makes the way he was fired by the president “shocking” he says.


A bit less than three months ago, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch testified in this same room during his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings. Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building draws many of the highest profile hearings


Warner says: “The testimony that Mr Comey has submitted for today’s hearing is very disturbing.”

He’s focusing on the president asking Comey to drop an ongoing investigation.


Bharara in the room

Preet Bharara, the former US attorney for the Southern District of New York, who was dumped by Trump, is among the attendees at the hearing

https://twitter.com/PreetBharara/status/872523979856244737


Burr says committee plans to wrap up the public session by 1pm and then retreat to a classified session


Not a witch hunt

Warner says the hearing is not a witch hunt or fake news, but an attempt to protection the country from a new threat that won’t go away.

Comey then stands to take his oath and opens his testimony.


Comey says he is not going to repeat his written statement. Will offer some introductory remarks then answer questions.


Comey says he understood he could be fired by the president for “any reason or no reason at all”


Comey says he was confused when he saw the president saying he had fired him from the FBI because of the Russia investigation.

He says shifting explanations “confused me and increasingly concerned me”.


Defamation and lies

Comey says the administration “chose to defame me” with “lies” about poor morale at the FBI


Comey calls it ‘the honor of his life” to have served in the FBI and addressing his former colleagues says he regrets not having had a chance to say goodbye


Very strong words by Comey in rebuttal to administration attacks.

The FBI is honest, the FBI is strong and the FBI is and always will be independent.

He is not mincing his words.


In answer to Burr’s first question, Comey says “no”, the office of special counsel Robert Mueller did not review or edit his testimony.


Russia intervened in 2016 election

“No doubt” Russia tried to intervene in the 2016 election by breaking into Democratic Party computers and leaking party emails


No obstruction

Burr asks Mr Comey if the president or any administration official asked him to stop the FBI investigation into Russian involvement in the election.

He says not to his understanding.


Burr asks if Comey thinks Trump was trying to “obstruct justice” but Comey declines saying more than calling it “disturbing”


Comey says: “In any complex investigation, when you start turning over rocks sometimes you find things that are unrelated to the [original] investigation that are criminal in nature.”


Steele dossier

Comey won’t answer in open session whether FBI confirmed anything in Steele dossier – an unverified dossier on Trump compiled by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele.


Russian cyber intrusions from 2015

Comey says he learned in late summer of 2015 about the first Russian cyber intrusions


How many entities, governmental and non-governmental, did Russian agents launch cyber attacks on?

“It’s hundreds, I suppose it could be more than a 1,000, but it’s at least hundreds,” Comey says.


Comey confirms the FBI did not have direct access to the Democratic Party computers but attained forensic details from a third-party vendor.

By spring 2016, FBI had what it needed to understand the cyberattacks, he says


Comey offers praise for Special Counsel Bob Mueller, who preceded him as FBI director, as one of Washington’s “great, great pros”


No word from President Trump

No tweets or any other word from President Trump so far this morning, but the AP is reporting that “Trump will dispute key parts of former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony”, citing a person close to the president’s legal team.


Comey says he wrote contemporaneous memos of his conversations with Trump on all or nearly all of their 9 talks


US president might lie…”because of the nature of the” president

Extraordinary statement from Comey on why he took down a detailed record immediately after his first meeting at Trump Tower with president-elect Trump.

This was because he was meeting alone with Trump and because he was concerned Mr Trump might lie about the meeting.


Comey says he didn’t feel the need to document conversations with previous presidents Obama and Bush. Nature of Trump as a person convinced him he needed to do so


Comey says FBI leadership team was not unanimous in deciding to tell president-elect Trump on Jan 6 that he was not under counter-intelligence investigation.

One senior official felt that since bureau was investigating Trump’s campaign, his conduct was ultimately at issue


Comey says that commonsense told him that Trump was looking to “get something” in exchange for granting a request by Comey to stay in his job.


Patronage concern

On Comey’s written comment about Trump seeking to establish a “patronage” relationship, Comey says: “My common sense told me that what was going on was [Trump] had concluded, or someone told him, you already asked Comey to stay and you didn’t get anything for it, and the dinner was an effort to build loyalty in the context of asking me to stay.”

https://twitter.com/CNNPolitics/status/872827310222782465


Something big is about to happen

“Something big is about to happen,” Comey says he thought as Trump asked everyone else to leave the room at Feb 14 White House meeting


Warner says committee wants access to Comey’s unclassified memo of his talk with Trump


Surprisingly warm remarks from Republican Senator Risch of Idaho.

Meanwhile, in bars and restaurants across Washington, crowds are drawn around the television screens watching Comey intently. Below, the Union Bar:


Comey confirms that Trump was not personally under investigation at the time he served as FBI director


Comey says a New York Times report about surveillance showing extensive links between the Trump campaign and Russia “in the main” was not true


Republican Senator Risch drills into Comey’s exchanges with Mr Trump in which the president said he hoped Comey would let the investigation with Flynn go.

Comey says he took Mr Trump’s words as “a direction”.

But he says Mr Trump did not order him to let the investigation go.


Senator Feinstein: “I really regret the situation we all find ourselves in”


Fired

Comey says he takes the president at his word that he was fired because of his handling of the Russia investigation


“Our relationship didn’t get off to a great start,” Comey says of Jan 6 briefing of Trump on salacious allegations in the Steele dossier


Preview of the Republican stance

Senator Risch’s comments could be a preview of how some Republicans are going to try to defend the president.

After the president told Comey “I hope you can let [the Flynn investigation] go”, Risch asked Comey: “You don’t know of anyone that’s ever been charged for hoping something?” Comey said that was hard to answer.


Tapes

Comey says he saw Trump’s tweet about there being tapes of their conversations.

He says “Lordy I hope there are tapes”

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/863007411132649473

https://twitter.com/PreetBharara/status/872830054698536960


Feinstein asks why Comey didn’t flatly reject Trump’s request to halt the FBI investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. He says he was “so stunned by the conversation” that he failed to do so.


Shocked and troubled

“They were as shocked and troubled by it as I was,” Comey says of other top FBI officials’ view of the president’s interference in their probe


“I took it as a direction” to end the investigation, Comey says of president’s request


Stunned

Marco Rubio asks Comey to confirm that he saw Trump’s request about Flynn as an order, which Comey confirms.

Asked why he did not respond that this was not appropriate, Comey says he was “a bit stunned” and did not have the presence of mind to do this.


Comey says he didn’t publicly say Trump wasn’t under investigation since it would launch him down a “slippery slope” of being pressured to do the same for others


Donald Trump Jr responds

Son Donald Trump Jr is tweeting, even if his dad is not.

He’s seizing on the Risch defense:

Writes: “Knowing my father for 39 years when he “orders or tells” you to do something there is no ambiguity, you will know exactly what he means.”

“Hoping and telling are two very different things, you would think that a guy like Comey would know that. #givemeabreak”

https://twitter.com/DonaldJTrumpJr/status/872830442344415232

https://twitter.com/DonaldJTrumpJr/status/872828608464773120

https://twitter.com/DonaldJTrumpJr/status/872829135487475712


Senator Rubio stressing that Trump agreed with Comey’s statement that administration would benefit from a thorough investigation if it found no wrongdoing.

https://twitter.com/CNNPolitics/status/872833888112037889


Comey says he told the following FBI officials about his Trump concerns: the deputy director; chief of staff; general counsel; deputy director/chief counsel; associate deputy director and often the head of the national security branch


Rubio summarises to Mr Comey what the president’s requests to him were. They were to ask for Mr Comey’s loyalty, to drop the investigation into Mike Flynn, and to tell the American people what congressional leaders already knew – that Trump himself was not under investigation.

Comey confirms the summary.


Emoticon Comey says he was aware of facts about Attorney General Sessions that suggested his need to recuse himself from involvement in the Russia investigation, but can’t discuss them in public. This is new.


J Edgar Hoover situation

Comey says his Jan 6 assurance that Trump was not under investigation was offered in context of the Steele dossier allegations.

Comey says he worried that otherwise he might appear to be in a “J Edgar Hoover situation,” holding over the president’s head damaging and secret personal information


Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, tells Comey that the president should never have cleared the room and asked him top drop the Flynn investigation.

But she also says she was puzzled by Comey’s decision not to tell the president the meeting was inappropriate.


Shutting down Flynn probe

Comey says he brought his concerns to both Attorney General Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, but didn’t alert the White House counsel because “it was of investigative interest to us” that Trump had made the request.

Means the FBI needed to look into why the president was so interested in shutting down the Flynn inquiry


Middle of the night

Comey says he woke up in the middle of the night after Trump’s tweet about possible White House tapes of their conversation, realising the need to get his side of the exchanges before the public.

So he asked a friend, a professor at Columbia Law School, to share the contents of his memo with a reporter.


Says he thought by doing so, it might speed the appointment of a special counsel


No doubt whatsoever about Russian election interference

Comey is definitive in his statement about Russia’s interference in the election. There should be “no fuzz on this whatsoever” he says.

Russia interfered with “purpose, sophistication and overwhelming technical efforts”.

This, he says is “about as unfake as you can get? And very, very serious. Comey also says he remembers no interactions with Trump about that interference in the election.


Challenged on why Americans should believe Comey over the president, the ousted FBI chief points to Trump ushering everyone else out of the room in order to speak with him privately about the Flynn probe. Why do that if the request was appropriate? he asks

Meanwhile, the scene from a Brooklyn bar, below, in a picture by AP’s Steve People’s

https://twitter.com/sppeoples/status/872823328284839937


Donald Trump Jr continues to defend his father vigorously on Twitter. He’s retweeting this statement from Harvard Prof Alan Dershowitz: “Powerful oral statement by Comey criticizing President Trump. Doesn’t claim he committed any crime. Again important distinction.”

https://twitter.com/DonaldJTrumpJr/status/872837832603299840


Some of the summaries Comey wrote of his meetings with Trump are classified, including the one he wrote after their first meeting on Jan 6. But committee could see them.


More from Donald Trump Jr on Twitter: “Did I miss something or did Comey just say he asked a friend to leak information to the press? Is this a joke?”

He didn’t miss anything. That’s precisely what Comey said.

https://twitter.com/DonaldJTrumpJr/status/872838297713815552


Comey says taking “no action” following Trump’s request was important to preserve ongoing investigation


Comey memos now with special counsel

Comey says he no longer has any of his memos, having given them to the special counsel


Feeding seagulls

Comey says he gave the memo to a friend to give to the press because reporters were camped at the end of his driveway.

He worried that if he did it directly, it would be “like feeding seagulls at the beach.”


Comey challenged over his decision to brief a friend on his conversation with president and that his memorandum.

As a private citizen Mr Comey felt free to share it, he says, adding that he thought he should get it out.


Comey says Trump invited him to dinner at the White House, disputing the president’s claim that he had requested the meeting. Had to break a dinner date with his wife to attend.

https://twitter.com/AP_Politics/status/872847311797460992


“I never initiated a conversation with the president,” Comey says, disputing Trump’s claim that the ex-FBI chief had once called him


Putin an opportunist

Answering Sen. Angus King, Comey says Russia will “be back” trying to manipulate US elections again in the future.

King says: “I don’t think Putin is a Republican or a Democrat. I think he’s an opportunist.”

Comey responds: “I think that’s a fair statement”


Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest

Talking about the president’s request, Comey says “It rings in my ear: ‘will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest.’”


Flynn inquiry and broader Russian probe were “touching each other but separate,” Comey says


Senator Lankford wants Comey to ask New York Times to give the committee its copy of his memos.

Highly unlikely that will ever happen.


Chilling effect

If FBI agents conducting the Flynn investigation had heard of the president’s request to stop the probe, there would have been a “real risk of a chilling effect on their work,” Comey says


Comey as press critic says many reports involving classified matters have been just plain wrong


Clinton nausea

Comey says then-Attorney General Lynch told him to call the Clinton email investigation a “matter” rather than an investigation.

“That gave me a queasy feeling,” he says, since it sounded like she wanted to “align” the FBI’s language with the Clinton campaign’s


“Queasy”

Comey reminds us of his last recollection about not feeling so well.

In May he told lawmakers it made him “mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election”.

That’s one thing that prompted Trump to call him a showboater, reportedly.


Russians are coming after America

“Nobody tells us what to think what to fight about…other than other Americans,” Comey says in explaining importance of the Russian affair. “That is a big deal…They’re coming after America,” he says of Russia.


Release the tapes

Comey says only the president knows if he recorded his conversation(s) with Comey.

“If he did, my feelings aren’t hurt. Release all the tapes,” Comey says.


No obstruction of justice?

“I don’t know,” Comey replies when asked if he believes the president obstructed justice. Says it’s up to Special Counsel Robert Mueller to determine


Outside of the hearing, Speaker Paul Ryan is making excuses for Trump.

He says Trump is unfamiliar with protocol. “The president’s new at this,” Ryan said at a news conference. “He’s new at government.”

That’s not likely to be an acceptable defence in the eyes of a lot of people.


Comey says Trump called him before Inauguration Day to reiterate that the salacious personal details contained in the Steele dossier were untrue


Asked by Republican senator Tom Cotton whether he believes Donald Trump colluded with Russia, Mr Comey says he does not think he should answer that in an open setting.


Comey agrees that Feb 14 New York Times story on links between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence was almost entirely wrong


Mike Huckabee, former GOP presidential candidate – and father of a White House spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee-Sanders – picks up on Comey comments about Obama administration attorney general Lynch asking him to change the way he talked about Clinton email case:

Huckabee tweets: “Will fmr AG Lynch be charged w/ obstruction of justice after Comey revelations of demands she made? Will Dems demand it?”

https://twitter.com/GovMikeHuckabee/status/872845667537956866

Meanwhile, at the White House press briefing today, Ms Sanders tells reporters: “I can say definitively the president is not a liar.”


Comey says he never considered resigning over his Trump concerns


Comey jokes “I’m between opportunities now” as Democratic senator Kamala Harris thanks him for enduring a grilling as a private citizen.


I was fired because of the Russian investigations

If you want to make an investigation go away, does it make sense to fire the FBI director, asks Sen. John Cornyn.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Comey says “but I’m obviously hopelessly biased given I was the one fired.”

https://twitter.com/AP_Politics/status/872853950311124993


Comey says Lynch had the appearance of a conflict of interest in her response to the Clinton email


Comey says he considered calling for a special counsel to be appointed following Lynch’s tarmac meeting with former President Bill Clinton.

But decided it would have been “brutally unfair” because he already had determined there was nothing serious in the Clinton email probe


Comey says he had “no contact. no conversation” with any of the US intelligence chiefs whom Trump asked to press him on Russia probe


Asked by Senator Jack Reed (D) whether he believes he was fired by Mr Trump because he refused to take direction from the president, Comey says he is not sure as to the cause.

It may have been because the way Comey was handling the Russia inquiry was putting pressure on Trump or irritating him, he says.


Burr winding down the open session by expressing appreciation for Comey’s service and for “telling it like it is”

At the same time – Donald Trump is taking the stage to deliver his remarks at a Faith and Freedom Coalition conference.

https://twitter.com/CNNPolitics/status/872855258577416192


Comey still has more than an hour of closed-door testimony ahead


Finally – that thing

Sen. McCain is very interested in “that thing”. Comey wrote that Trump said in one of their conversations: “We had that thing, you know.”

McCain wanted to know why Comey didn’t press the president on the meaning of “that thing”.

Comey said he guessed Trump was thinking back to the meeting where he asked Comey for loyalty, then stopped short because he remembered Comey didn’t pledge any loyalty.


Warner says “there clearly remain a number of questions” following Comey’s testimony, adds: “We’re going to get to the bottom of this”


Wrapping up

The hearing is now wrapping up. At least the “open” or public part.

Senators Burr and Warner have made their closing statements.

They’ll hear more from Comey in a private session after lunch.


As public session ends, Comey appears to have come through more or less unscathed.

Toughest Republican challenges centered on his failure to directly challenge the president for an inappropriate request at the time it was lodged.

But Republican attacks on his credibility have been harsher outside the hearing room than inside, where intel committee members have personal experience working with him.


A few points to come out of the Comey hearing.

** The former FBI director said he took Donald Trump’s request to him in a private meeting to drop the investigation into Mike Flynn as a “direction”. He later quoted Henry II, saying the gist of the request was who will rid me of this meddlesome priest

** Comey testified that Trump and others in the administration lied when they said agents had lost confidence in Mr Comey

** Discussing Mr Trump’s suggestion that there were recordings of their conversations, Mr Comey said “Lordy, I hope there are tapes”

** Mr Comey acknowledged that he had orchestrated the leak via a friend of his conversation with Mr Trump about Mike Flynn in the hopes of triggering the appointment of a special counsel.


Future focus on Trump and Russia

Focus will, of course, be on Trump and Russia.

But Comey’s testimony is also bad for Loretta Lynch, attorney general in the Obama administration.

His account of her directing him to soft-pedal public descriptions of the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email practices makes Lynch appear to have been working in concert with the Democratic presidential campaign — something that Republicans have long suggested.


Uncomfortable moment

Undoubtedly, the committee’s most uncomfortable moment involved Senator John McCain, an American hero and the 2008 Republican presidential candidate.

McCain, 80, engaged in a protracted back-and-forth with Comey that seemed confused over the differences between the FBI’s ongoing investigation of Russian election-meddling and its now-concluded probe of Hillary Clinton’s email use.


Trump speaking at faith event, immediately after the hearing

This despatch just in from DC bureau chief Demetri Sevastopulo:

Mr Trump did not comment, or tweet, about the Comey testimony. But in a speech to a religious forum, he cited the Old Testament, before saying:

“The entrenched interests … in Washington will do everything in their power to try and stop us from this righteous cause … They will lie, they will obstruct, they will spread their hatred and their prejudice, but we will not back down from doing what is right.”

“We know how to fight better than anybody and we never give up. We are winners and we are going to fight.”


Chief US columnist and commentator Edward Luce says the senate committee investigation boils down to Mr Comey’s word against Mr Trump’s.

https://twitter.com/FinancialTimes/status/862112701597831174


The Big Questions

The final word goes to the FT’s DC bureau chief chief Demetri Sevastopulo:

In the wake of the hearing, the most critical question is whether Mr Comey’s testimony lends credence to the view of those who have accused Mr Trump of attempting to obstruct justice.

Mr Comey declined to take a view himself, saying he would leave that to Robert Mueller, the special counsel who was recently appointed to lead an independent Russia investigation.

Another question is whether Mr Mueller could try to indict a sitting president if he concluded Mr Trump obstructed justice, or whether resolution of the issue would become a purely political decision that would see Democrats and Republicans debate the case for impeachment.

To read about the key issues surrounding the matter of whether or not Mr Trump could be impeached, the FT’s Sam Fleming has outlined the case here