“I was honestly concerned that he might lie,” James Comey said of President Trump.
Comey offered that rationale to explain why he documented every conversation he had with the President, starting with their very first discussion. Former FBI Director Comey clarified that he had never felt compelled to document conversations with prior Presidents Obama or Bush. He pointed to “the nature of the person,” referring to President Trump’s questionable character and integrity in explaining why he felt such notes were prudent. Throughout his testimony Comey repeatedly, if cautiously, impugned the president’s behavior and honesty.
It is remarkable for a high-ranking intelligence official to speak so unfavorably of a sitting president. It is even more remarkable that such comments were made under oath before the Senate Intelligence Committee, where Comey testified on Thursday. His appearance had been highly anticipated, coming one month after Trump fired him on May 9.
Comey was called before the committee in open session to speak on matters related to the Trump / Russia investigation, Comey’s own firing, and possible obstruction of justice by President Trump. During his time on the stand, Comey spoke at length about his personal interactions with the President.
Comey gave detailed accounts of conversations regarding President Trump’s requests to scuttle the Michael Flynn investigation. Comey did concede that Pres. Trump never specifically directed him to curtail the Flynn investigation, saying instead that there was implied pressure. “I took it as direction. This is what he wanted to me to do.”
Comey also spoke to concerns about a loyalty oath, confirming that Trump did indeed press Comey to pledge his loyalty. Comey refused, offering instead his honesty. Comey and the President agreed on a peculiar compromise, with Comey offering “honest loyalty” and Trump accepting that.
Much of his time under questioning focused on possible obstruction of justice. This is the very charge that brought down Nixon in 1974 and contributed to impeachment proceedings against President Clinton in 1998. In one particular exchange on Thursday, Comey said “I was fired because of the Russia investigation. That is a very big deal.” This sworn testimony could factor in as evidence in any possible criminal case for obstruction of justice.
The Trump / Comey story has been contentious since the firing, with the President denigrating Comey on several occasions. Trump is reported to have called Comey a “nut job” to Russians in a controversial Oval Office meeting. At other times Trump claimed that the FBI was in “turmoil” under Comey’s leadership, and implied that Comey was incompetent and agents had lost trust. In Thursday’s testimony, Comey shot back. There was clear bitterness in Comey’s voice when he defended himself and his bureau, calling the President’s claims “lies, plain and simple.”
Trump’s dishonesty is a well-worn topic by media and critics, but to hear a former FBI director accuse the president of “lies” is new territory. Even critical media have been reluctant to use that heavily charged word, instead using software language such as “he didn’t tell the truth.” Such strong language from a career intelligence professional of Comey’s mettle could change the vocabulary in discussions going forward.
Overwhelming evidence that Russia meddled in the 2016 election underlies hot-button stories of possible collusion. On that point Comey steadfastly sidestepped political infighting, bluntly stating that Russia “tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act … They’re coming after America. … They want to undermine our credibility in the face of the world.” He concluded expressing great pride in the FBI, saying that both he and the agency upheld the mission “to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States.”