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James Comey testifies he thought Trump 'might lie' about meetings

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Comey says in Senate testimony that there was distrust between the two men from the start, and that he never documented meetings with Bush or Obama

Fired FBI director James Comey documented every meeting he had with Donald Trump because he thought the US president might lie about what had taken place, he told senators on Thursday during explosive testimony.

Comey also accused Trump of defaming him and the FBI, said he believed he was fired because of the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, and told how he believed the president had directed him to shut down scrutiny of a senior adviser.

Recalling his first meeting with the president-elect at Trump Tower in New York in January, Comey made clear there was distrust between the two men from the outset. “First, I was alone with the president of the United States, or the president-elect, soon to be president,” he explained. “The subject matter: I was talking about matters that touch on the FBI’s core responsibility and that relate to the president-elect personally.

“And then the nature of the person. I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document. That combination of things I had never experienced before, but it led me to believe I got to write it down, and I got to write it down in a very detailed way.”

Comey never felt a need to document his conversations with former presidents George W Bush or Barack Obama, he added.

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 216 of the Senate’s Hart building on Capitol Hill, with millions believed to be 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.

Reflecting on how he was fired by Trump, an emotional Comey said the president’s administration “chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI” by claiming that the agency was in a state of “disarray”.

Comey said: “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.”

After taking the oath, Comey noted that he had been appointed to a 10-year term but understood he could be dismissed before that. “I understood that I could be fired by a president for any reason or for no reason at all,” he said.

But when Trump did dismiss him last month, the president’s “shifting explanations confused me and increasingly concerned me”, he said. “He had repeatedly told me I was doing a great job and he hoped I would stay ... He told me repeatedly that he had talked to lots of people about me ... and had learned that I was doing a great job.

“So it confused me when I saw on television that the president fired me because of the Russia investigation.”

Comey was also puzzled, he said, when the dismissal was attributed to his handling of a separate investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

Later, taking questions from senators, Comey said: “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.”

It was “a very big deal” if any Americans were involved in coordinating with the Russians, Comey added.

In all their conversations, Trump never expressed curiosity about Russian meddling in the election, Comey said. Comey set out the high stakes of the 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.

“That’s what this is about. They will be back, because we remain – as difficult as we can be with each other – we remain that shining city on the hill, and they don’t like it.”

He faced detailed questioning about a series of meetings with Trump he set out in his statement for the record. 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.”

Trump’s son, Donald Jr, played up the distinction, tweeting: “Hoping and telling are two very different things, you would think that a guy like Comey would know that. #givemeabreak.”

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?’”

King said: “I was just going to quote that. In 1170, December 29, Henry II said, ‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ and then the next day he was killed. Thomas à Becket. That’s exactly the same situation. We’re thinking along the same lines.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, asked Comey why he did not stop and tell Trump “this is wrong”. The former director admitted: “Maybe if I was stronger I would have… I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in. Maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance.”

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 was to prompt the appointment of a special counsel to take over the Russia investigation.

Comey said that he “asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter... I asked a close friend of mine to do it.”

The Washington Post reported that former federal prosecutor Daniel Richman of Columbia Law school had confirmed this was him.

Comey did this hoping to help prompt the appointment of a special counsel, he added. (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 about 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.

Senator Roy Blunt, a Republican, asked why he would not simply release the notes to the media himself. Comey replied: “I was worried, the media was camping at the end of my driveway at that point and I was actually going out of town with my wife to hide; I was worried it would be like feeding seagulls at the beach.”

In an opening statement before Comey spoke, Burr, of North Carolina, noted that allegations had been “swirling” in the press for weeks and said this was an opportunity to set the record straight. “The American people need to hear your side of the story just as they need to hear the president’s description of events,” he told Comey.

Burr asked: “In your estimation was General Flynn at that time in serious legal jeopardy, and in addition to that, do you sense that the president was trying to obstruct justice or just seek for a way for Mike Flynn to save face given that he had already been fired?”

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 trumpeted Comey’s admission he assured the president more than once that he was not a target of the FBI’s investigation. Trump’s lawyer has claimed that the Comey statement “vindicated” the president.

The hearing was a national spectacle covered by the three major networks and earned comparisons with the Watergate, Iran contra and Clarence Thomas hearings. At sideBar in New York City, the typical din of flirting youth and cheering sports fans was exchanged for a silent crowd, hooked on the words of senators. The bar broadcast the hearing on 16 screens as bartenders.

More than two dozen people, excluding a handful of journalists, watched the hearing. Catherine Talese, a 49-year-old native New Yorker, said the sports bar setting did not reflect the gravity of the event. “We’d prefer to have our president and government be just,” Talese said. “I don’t think we’re just enjoying politics as sports.”

On the opposite side of the country in Los Angeles, guests at a Comey watch party practiced yoga just before the hearing got under way.

Republicans on the intelligence committee sought to shore up Trump’s defences. Marco Rubio suggested that Trump had made three requests: pledge loyalty, let Flynn go, and tell the public that Trump himself was not under investigation. Comey agreed: “Those are the three things he asked, yes, sir.”

Rubio commented: “The only thing that’s never been leaked is the fact that the president has never been under investigation.”

Trump abruptly 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: ”It never occurred until the president’s tweet. And, I’m not being facetious, I hope there are. All I can do is hope. 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.”

The hearing adjourned at 12.42pm ahead of a closed session. Democrat Mark Warner, vice-chairman of the committee, said: “There’s still a lot of unanswered questions. We’re going to get to the bottom of this.”

Trump himself managed to refrain from tweeting during the near three-hour hearing. 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.”

Additional reporting by Amanda Holpuch


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