Recently fired FBI director James Comey’s unprecedented Senate hearing Thursday morning riveted official Washington and left reporters, members of Congress, and the American public with almost more questions than before—including an apparent indication that his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is a central figure in the still-unfolding investigation into Russia’s meddling with the 2016 election.
It was a day of high drama in Washington, beginning on Capitol Hill, where those who wanted one of the rare 88 public seats in the hearing room began lining up at 4:15 am. Bars from DC to Brooklyn opened early for interested viewers. In Virginia, live coverage followed the tan armored SUV that picked up the one-time FBI director up at his home for the drive into the city. Across the country, in California, there was even an early-morning “Comey yoga” gathering for those who wanted their stretching with a side of political intrigue.
In a surprise twist, Comey skipped right over his prepared testimony—the bombshell seven-page written statement released yesterday—and instead devoted the bulk of the hearing’s nearly three hours to senators’ questions, even as his written words continued to reverberate around the Capitol.
Comey—speaking in quiet, measured, and supremely confident tones, effusing an ease and comfort with testifying that he rarely did during his years of government service—called the president of the United States a liar multiple times. He explained how he’d documented his meetings with Donald Trump in detailed memos, a practice necessitated, he explained to the committee, because he was “concerned [Trump] might lie about the nature of our meeting.”
In colorful terms, he said he was confident his version of events would be backed up, even if—as Trump tweeted in a single obtuse reference—recordings might exist of the meetings at the White House. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey said.
Comey detailed how he privately shared his memos (which have been turned over to the special counsel investigating his firing) with top FBI executives—and how he stopped short of sharing them more widely, even with Justice Department overseers, because he didn’t want to “infect” the work of investigators examining the Trump campaign and Russia’s attack on the heart of American democracy. The memos detail Comey’s recounting of a series of strange and convoluted encounters with President Trump that included a dinner in the White House Green Room at which the president asked Comey for a pledge of loyalty and a private Oval Office meeting where Trump encouraged Comey to look past Michael Flynn’s transgressions.
Comey‘s staff at the FBI, he said, had been just as troubled by Trump’s comments and actions as he was. “They’re all experienced people who never experienced such a thing, so they were very concerned,” Comey said.
As for the circumstances of his departure from the FBI, Comey was unequivocal. “It’s my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” Comey told the Senate committee room. “I was fired in some way to change, or the endeavor was to change, the way the Russia investigation was being conducted.”
He dismissed the idea that he had been fired because of his handling of the Clinton email investigation, saying, “There was an explanation, I just don’t buy it.” He noted, too, that even Trump dropped that pretense just days after Comey’s removal, saying instead in a televised interview with NBC that under Comey’s leadership the FBI was in “turmoil.”
“The administration then chose to defame me, and more importantly the FBI, by saying that the organization was in disarray,” Comey said. “That it was poorly led. That the workforce had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple.”
A Nod at Obstruction
Comey, who has spent weeks prepping for the event with a team that included his old friend and one-time special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, provided a stunning spectacle—the former FBI director speaking directly and under oath to the men and women who might someday become the judge and jury during a possible future impeachment trial.
The erudite former FBI director, a one-time religion major and Reinhold Niebuhr scholar turned University of Chicago law grad, spoke without notes even during his opening remarks. He freely quoted Henry II, John Winthrop, and—in a heartfelt open message to his former FBI colleagues that he led with—John Wesley’s admonition to “do all the good you can.”
Comey made clear that while Trump’s request was not a direct order, he interpreted it in the same way as King Henry II once expressed his wish to have Thomas Becket murdered. As Comey explained in an exchange with Maine Senator Angus King, “It rings in my ear as, well, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”
In the hearing—some of the most eye-popping testimony ever delivered before Congress, eclipsing even Comey’s own surprise testimony in 2007 where he laid out a dramatic showdown in John Ashcroft’s hospital with the Bush White House over the constitutionality of an NSA surveillance program known as STELLAR WIND—Comey stopped short of directly accusing president of obstructing justice, saying that it was a matter for special counsel Robert Mueller to decide.
Yet he made clear his own opinions, pointing to how President Trump had asked everyone else to leave the Oval Office, including Sessions and Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner, before mentioning to Comey privately his support of Michael Flynn and his hopes for Comey: “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.”
While Republican senators focused on the fact that Trump didn’t directly order Comey to drop the matter, Comey indicated the presence of what prosecutors call a mens rea, a guilty mind: “Why did he kick everybody out of the Oval Office?” Comey said. “That, to me as an investigator, is a very significant fact.”
The rest of the morning had no shortage of sparks. But several stand-out moments had less to do with Comey’s responses than with his inability to provide them in an unclassified setting.
In one particularly notable exchange, Republican senator Tom Cotton, widely seen as a rising star in Trump’s Washington, asked simply, “Do you believe Donald Trump colluded with Russia?”
“It’s a question I don’t think I should answer in an open setting,” Comey replied.
Comey also sidestepped questions about VEB, the Russian economic development bank, whose head met privately with Jared Kushner, saying that there was virtually “nothing [about the bank] that I can talk about in an open setting.”
Meanwhile, the current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, emerged from the hearing with a clear target on his back, as Comey hinted that there was compromising, classified evidence that would have made Sessions’ participation in the Russia probe “problematic.” Thus, Comey explained, he was left at at key moments without a Justice Department superior to confide his concerns about the president’s behavior and inappropriate contacts with the FBI.
In some of his most forceful remarks, Comey tried to refocus attention on the knowns and unknowns of Russia’s activities in 2016—including a reference that seemed to confirm speculation that Russian intelligence had targeted state election systems. “There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever. The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. It was an active measures campaign driven from the top of that government. There is no fuzz on that,” he said, his voice pregnant with outrage. “That’s about as unfake as you can possibly get.”
The widening questions about last year’s election and possible American collusion with Russia—and the continued dysfunction among the House Intelligence Committee’s parallel investigation—has made the body where Comey testified, the Senate Intelligence Committee, front-and-center in the ongoing investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Thursday’s Comey appearance was the committee’s ninth public hearing of the year. As Burr noted, that’s more than double the average annual number of public hearings the body typically holds.
Altogether, the day was a sobering experience, one that amid much political dysfunction in Washington and across the country underscored the stakes ahead, and the importance of a bipartisan consensus around how to proceed. As he left the open hearing for the classified hearing room where he would continue discussing the matter, Comey said he hoped the day showed “we can work together when it involves the core interest of the country… [and that] we are a functioning adult democracy.”
Whether anything James Comey said in his Thursday remarks or in written testimony will rouse Congress toward action—and just how much of it will break through to the wider American public—remains an open question. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this week showed that only about four in 10 Americans trust Comey’s word on the Russia matter.
The president’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, released a statement after the hearing that stopped just shy of accusing Comey of perjury, saying, “The President likewise never pressured Mr. Comey. The President also never told Mr. Comey, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty’ in form or substance.”
Answering all of these questions will be the purview the new special counsel, Robert Mueller, who, even as Comey’s testimony unfolded, was assembling his team and setting up an office in Washington to push the investigation forward—although it may be months before we hear more substantive updates from his team. It will be up to Mueller, Comey said, to draw conclusions from the evidence Comey has now laid out: “That’s Bob Mueller’s job to sort that out.”