James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee was the most dramatic flashpoint yet in the Russia scandal consuming President Donald Trump’s White House.
The former FBI director accused the president of lying, suggested Trump’s decision to fire him may have been done with the intent to interfere with the FBI’s Russia investigation, and he expressed hope that the special counsel probe will get to the bottom of whether Trump or others obstructed justice. He also reaffirmed that as of May 9 — the day he was fired — Trump was not the target of an FBI investigation.
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Comey’s attention-grabbing testimony may do little to alter the political equation driving lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and there’s no sign that it broke the fever of polarization surrounding the investigation. But Comey still jarred the Senate Intelligence Committee with unvarnished details about his meetings with the president and in doing so opened a new chapter in the Russia scandal that has enveloped Washington.
Here are POLITICO’s top five takeaways from Comey’s latest turn in the spotlight:
From the outset, Comey regarded Trump as a liar
Comey’s prepared statement made it clear that the former FBI director was troubled by his interactions with Trump in recent months, but it wasn’t until Comey’s live testimony Thursday that the FBI director suggested he harbored doubts about Trump’s honesty from the very first time he met him – and perhaps even earlier.
Comey told the Senate panel that he decided to make a record of details of his first encounter with the president-elect, at Trump Tower on Jan. 6, in part because he thought Trump might lie about what happened.
“First, I was alone with the president of the United States, or the president-elect, soon to be president. The subject matter I was talking about, matters that touch on the FBI’s core responsibility, and that relate to the president, president-elect personally, and, then, the nature of the person,” Comey declared. “I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting, so I thought it important to document. That combination of things I had never experienced before, but had led me to believe I got to write it down and write it down in a very detailed way.”
Comey relayed his take in a matter-of-fact fashion but his assessment reflects a bizarre juxtaposition. Just prior to the one-on-one session with Trump, the FBI chief and other officials had just briefed the president-elect on some of the most sensitive intelligence secrets of the United States government.
However, Comey left that briefing — and perhaps arrived at it — so dubious about Trump’s personal integrity that he felt compelled to pull out a laptop and write down all he could remember while in an FBI vehicle. The ex-FBI director said some kind of a “gut” take on Trump led him to take that precaution.
“A gut feeling is an important overlay, but the circumstances, that I was alone, the subject matter and the nature of the person I was interacting with and my read of that person,” Comey said.
The former FBI chief didn’t elaborate on what specifically about Trump’s “nature” would induce such concern or when he arrived at that opinion of Trump, but it seemed to leave some Republicans and Trump allies convinced that the president-elect had an enemy in Comey long before their tense White House encounters.
The cloud is growing, not lifting
Comey testified that Trump repeatedly asked him to help lift the “cloud” of the Russia investigation dogging his administration. But even though Comey confirmed Trump wasn’t personally under investigation as of May 9, his testimony complicates life for a president trying to wash away the stain of the scandal.
More than once, Comey cast Trump as a liar. In Comey’s telling, the president lied when he said Comey requested a late-January dinner, he lied when he claimed he didn’t ask Comey to “let Flynn go” and he lied about the circumstances surrounding Comey’s departure. Comey said he’d welcome it if the president released tapes of their meeting, which Trump once hinted he might have.
Comey’s description of their meetings offered a window into Trump’s unusual request for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other top advisers to leave the Oval Office when he wanted to talk to Comey about former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
“My sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn’t be leaving, which was why he was lingering,” Comey said. “And I don’t know Kushner well but I think he picked up on the same thing, so I knew something was about to happen that I needed to pay very close attention to.”
Comey repeatedly indicated that he expects special counsel Robert Mueller to resolve questions about whether Trump committed obstruction of justice. And far from reinforcing his point about Trump not being the target of an investigation, Comey declined to say whether he believed Trump himself colluded with Russians to undermine the election.
Comey’s startling testimony may have provided striking revelations about his meetings with the president, but what he declined to discuss may be even juicier.
Comey hinted, most prominently, that he’d be better positioned to share his view about whether the president colluded with Russians in a classified setting with lawmakers, where he could discuss specific insights about the FBI investigation he was leading until his ouster.
But he also suggested there were details about Sessions’ decision to recuse himself that he couldn’t talk about publicly. “Our judgment, as I recall, is that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons,” Comey said. “We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an opening setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.”
Comey also declined to respond to a question from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) about whether he knew if other White House officials who’ve been in contact with the Russians could present concerns like those that led to the Flynn’s firing. And Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) asked a series of tantalizing questions that Comey promised to address in private.
• Were there meetings between officials currently in the Trump White House and Russians that they have yet to reveal?
• Did any Trump campaign officials or associates attempt to mask communications with Russians through encryption?
• Was there any evidence that records of communication between Trump associates and Russians were destroyed?
• Was there any attempt to conceal meetings between campaign officials and Russians?
Trump was expected to take a bruising at Thursday’s hearing and it seemed inevitable that Comey would also take some hits over his actions. Both those things transpired, but what was less expected was the collateral damage to a slew of others, including Sessions, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
In the wake of press reports about Sessions being in disfavor with Trump for months, Comey’s testimony made the attorney general sound ineffectual in dealing with a chief executive repeatedly transcending the rules and the norms governing the White House’s dealing with the FBI.
Comey cast some shade at Sessions by saying he unwisely agreed to clear out of a White House meeting in February, leaving Trump and Comey alone and the president in a position to make what Comey took as a request to shut down the probe into Flynn.
Comey said he later bluntly warned Sessions against leaving him alone with Trump. “I told the attorney general, it can’t happen that you get kicked out of the room and the president talks to me,” the ex-FBI chief said.
Comey said Sessions said nothing at all in response to the warning, but his body language suggested some inability to control the president. “I have a recollection of him just kind of looking at me. It was a danger I’m projecting on to him so this might be a faulty memory…his body language gave me a sense like: what am I going to do?”
The former FBI director said he also expressed his “serious concern” to Rosenstein about Trump’s end-runs around the typical reporting chain. It’s unclear what the deputy AG did, if anything, about the complaint after he was sworn in on April 26.
But less than two weeks later, Rosenstein provided a letter that provided cover for Trump’s firing of Comey—apparently knowing that Comey had expressed concerns about improper actions by the president. Sessions also knew about Comey’s complaints when he endorsed the dismissal.
Lynch has been out of office for nearly five months, but she suffered some blows as Comey said he was troubled by her request to refer publicly to the Hillary Clinton email probe as a “matter” rather than a criminal investigation.
“I don’t know whether it was intentional or not but it gave the impression that the attorney general was looking to align the way we talked about our work with the way [the Clinton campaign] was describing that. It was inaccurate,” Comey declared. “That gave me a queasy feeling.”
A Justice Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A person familiar with the discussion between Lynch and Comey pushed back against the idea that Lynch proposed using the term “matter” as a way to align with the Clinton campaign.
“The AG told Director Comey that she had used the term ‘matter’ in response to press inquiries, in order to ensure that she neither confirmed nor denied the investigation, in accordance with longstanding Justice Department and FBI policy,” this person said. “She suggested that she and the director should be consistent in their language, and at the end of the meeting, she asked if everyone was comfortable with using the term ‘matter.’ No one, including the Director, contested that view.”
The aftershocks from Comey’s testimony are still reverberating but it took virtually no time for partisans to retreat to their corners and begin sniping at each other over the meaning and import of what he said. Entreaties by members of the Senate and Comey himself to set aside partisanship to prevent future meddling by Russia quickly fell apart.
It may have been a pivotal moment in the ongoing investigations, but there was never any true hope that Comey would help break the fever in D.C. Republicans and Democrats issued form-letter press releases declaring Comey’s testimony to be exculpatory or damning, many of which read like they’d been written in advance.
“Today’s testimony proved what we have known all along: President Trump is not under investigation, there’s still no evidence of collusion, and he did not hinder the investigations in any way,” said Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel in a statement. “Nobody thinks more of James Comey than James Comey, and his testimony today was simply a last ditch attempt to save face with the American people.”
The RNC, which blasted out rapid reaction to undermine Comey throughout the hearing, cast it as a snore — except for the parts that seemed to bolster the president’s narrative, such as Comey’s declaration that Trump himself was not a target of the FBI investigation through at least May 9.
Some Republican lawmakers delivered quick defenses of the president’s conduct in the immediate aftermath of the hearing as well, displaying for Trump their fealty at a difficult time. Others, like Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Lindsey Graham, downplayed Trump’s interactions with Comey as potentially improper, saying they were likely driven by naivete, rather than malice.
Democrats, on the other hand, stepped closer to the threshold of accusing Trump of committing a crime.
“Former FBI Director Comey testified under oath that Donald Trump engaged in what amounts to abuse of power, and lied to the country,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) tweeted after the hearing.
The story was similar throughout the hearing. Democrats pushed Comey as far as he would go to describe acts that could be evidence in an obstruction of justice case. And Republicans raised questions about Comey’s conduct — his decision to publicly reveal memos about his interactions with Trump, and his decision not to tell Trump to back off when the president repeatedly asked him to “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigation.