The scandal of Donald Trump’s alleged ties to Russia deepened on Thursday when James Comey, the man he fired as director of the FBI, branded the US president a liar.
At a hearing that riveted Washington and millions across the United States, James Comey said he believed he had been sacked because of the FBI’s investigation into Moscow’s meddling in last year’s presidential election.
The Trump administration lied to smear the reputation of Comey and the FBI following his dismissal;
Comey documented every meeting he had with Trump because he thought the president might lie about what had taken place;
He passed details of the meetings via a friend to the press in the hope of spurring the appointment of a special counsel;
He believes that Trump directed him to shut down the FBI’s investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Comey also offered a stark view of the underlying issue – “massive” Russian interference in the US election. “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.”
In one of the most gripping chapters yet of the long-running Trump/Russia saga, Comey testified under oath to the Senate intelligence committee on Capitol Hill. Bars in New York and Washington DC opened as America’s three major TV networks broadcast live coverage of the hearing, which earned comparisons with Watergate.
His evidence did not deliver a knock-out blow to the Trump presidency, but it nevertheless cast the billionaire Republican’s integrity in a withering light.
Comey said of his own dismissal: “The administration chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader.”
“Those were lies, plain and simple, and I’m so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them, and I’m so sorry the American people were told them.”
He told the panel: “It’s my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation. I was fired in some way to change, or the endeavor was to change, the way the Russia investigation was being conducted. That is a very big deal.”
In a statement for the record released on Wednesday, Comey detailed several meetings with Trump this year, claiming that Trump demanded his “loyalty” and directly pushed him to “lift the cloud” of suspicion by declaring publicly the president was not the target of the Russia investigation.
In his testimony, Comey explained that he documented each meeting because he thought Trump might be dishonest about what had taken place – a practice he never felt obliged to undertake with former presidents George W Bush or Barack Obama.
“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document,” he said of their first conversation at Trump Tower in New York in January.
He also described a meeting in the Oval Office in February, when Trump allegedly cleared the room of officials, including the attorney general, and discussed the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s links to Russia. “I hope you can let this go,” the president allegedly said.
In a memorable exchange, Senator Angus King of Maine asked: “When a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like ‘I hope’ or ‘I suggest’ or ‘would you,’ do you take that as a directive?”
Comey replied: “Yes, it rings in my ear as kind of, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’” – a reference to King Henry’s II’s kiss of death to Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket.
Comey also revealed that he asked a friend to leak to the New York Times details of his memo about the Oval Office encounter“because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel”.
The former FBI chief was testifying under oath to the Senate intelligence committee on Russia’s interference in the presidential election in a packed room of the Senate’s Hart building on Capitol Hill, with millions watching on TV and online.
Comey entered the room at 10.02am to a chorus of clicking cameras, shook hands with chairman Richard Burr and sat behind a table, staring ahead inscrutably, his hands pressed together.
Comey said he was puzzled when the dismissal was attributed to his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, only for Trump to tell an interviewer it was because of Russia.
Comey said: “It’s my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” telling senators: “I was fired in some way to change, or the endeavor was to change, the way the Russia investigation was being conducted.”
Comey set out the high stakes of the Russia investigation in passionate remarks about an attack on America’s way of life.
“The reason this is such a big deal is we have this big, messy, wonderful country where we fight with each other all the time, but nobody tells us what to think, what to fight about, what to vote for except other Americans,” he said. “And that’s wonderful and often painful. But we’re talking about a foreign government using technical intrusion and lots of other methods tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is a big deal.
“And people need to recognize it. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America, which I hope we all love equally. They want to undermine our credibility in the face of the world. They think that this great experiment of ours is a threat to them, and so they’re going to try to run it down and dirty it up as much as possible.”
The former FBI chief faced detailed questioning about a series of meetings with Trump he set out in his statement for the record, which was published by the committee on Wednesday.
One was a private dinner with Trump at the White House in January. Comey said he walked away feeling like the president was “looking to get something in exchange for granting my request to stay in the job”.
He also discussed a meeting in the Oval Office in February, when Trump allegedly cleared the room of officials, including the attorney general, and discussed the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s links to Russia. “I hope you can let this go,” Trump allegedly said.
Senator James Risch of Idaho zeroed in on the word “hope”, asking: “He did not direct you to let it go?”
Comey acknowledged: “Not in his words, no.”
Risch asked: “Again, those words are not an order? He said: ‘I hope.’”
Comey replied: “The reason I keep saying his words is, I took it as a direction. This is the president of the United States. I took it as a direction.”
Risch demanded: “You don’t know anyone who has been charged for hoping something?”
Comey: “As I sit here I don’t.”
Comey also revealed that he was behind the leak to the New York Times of the details of his memo describing Trump asking him to let the Flynn inquiry go. He said his motivation in asking a friend to share the content of the memo was to prompt the appointment of a special counsel to take over the Russia investigation – special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed the next day.
He was motivated by Trump’s tweet implying that there were recordings of their meetings. Comey said he “woke up in the middle of the night” in a panic about the president’s tweet.
In a later line of questioning, Comey was again asked why he chose to leak his notes to the media. “As a private citizen, I felt free to share that. I thought it was very important to get it out,” he said.
Asked whether he thought Trump had tried to obstruct justice or merely seek a way for Mike Flynn to save face, Comey replied: “I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct. I took it as a very disturbing thing and very concerning, but that’s a conclusion that I’m sure the special counsel will work towards to try and understand what the intention was there and whether that’s an offence.”
Comey’s written testimony disclosed that Trump demanded his “loyalty” and directly pushed him to “lift the cloud” of investigation by declaring publicly the president was not the target of the investigation into his campaign’s Russia ties.
Democrats are keen to establish whether Trump’s actions amounted to obstruction of justice, while Republicans have seized on Comey’s confirmation that he assured the president more than once that he was not a target of the FBI’s investigation.
Trump fired Comey as director of the FBI on 9 May, admitting later that the Russia investigation was on his mind at the time. The president later tweeted: “James Comey better hope that there are no “tapes” of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
Comey said on Thursday: “I’ve seen the tweet about tapes. Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
He added later: “The president surely knows whether he taped and, if he did, my feelings aren’t hurt. Release all the tapes: I’m good with it.”
Trump managed to refrain from tweeting during the hearing, but his personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz in a statement tried to turn the tables on Comey, saying he had “admitted that he unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorised disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the president”.
Deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters: “I can definitively say the president is not a liar. I think it is frankly insulting that question would be asked.”