Former FBI director James Comey says White House spread 'lies' after his ouster

Former FBI director James B. Comey, testifying before lawmakers for the first time since he was fired last month, accused the Trump administration of telling "lies, plain and simple" about his ouster, and said he was "stunned" by the conversations he had with the president about the investigation into Russian interference in last year's election.

Speaking at an extraordinary, nationally televised hearing Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey said he believed President Donald J. Trump fired him in an attempt to influence the FBI investigation into whether his campaign had any ties to the Russian effort.

Comey, who served under Presidents George W. Bush, a Republican, and Barack Obama, a Democrat, offered a riveting account of Trump's behind-the-scenes attempts to court him. But his testimony left fundamental questions about the case unresolved. And it concluded only with the certainty that the criminal and congressional investigations will continue.

"It's my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation," Comey said. "The endeavor was to change the way the Russia investigation was being conducted. That is a very big deal."

Comey said, he was "confused" and "increasingly concerned" by the "shifting explanations" Trump offered in the days following his ouster, including the assertion that the agency had lost confidence in him.

Comey said he had warned Justice Department officials about his interactions with Trump at the time, and took notes because he did not trust how the president would characterize them.

"I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, so I thought it really important to document," Comey said. "I knew there might come a day when I might need a record of what happened not only to defend myself but to protect the FBI."

At times Comey mixed an aw-shucks style with a knife twist. After Comey was fired, Trump tweeted he had "better hope there are no 'tapes' of our conversations." Comey said Thursday that if there are tapes, he wants them to become public in order to confirm his account.

"Lordy, I hope there are tapes," he said.

Trump officials have declined to say whether the president has installed recording devices at the White House. A spokeswoman dodged that question again Thursday, joking that she would "look under the couches" for them.

Comey did not say whether he believes Trump tried to obstruct justice, as some Democrats have claimed. He said only that such a determination would have to be made by the special counsel appointed last month.

Comey said he viewed one of his private discussions with the president as "a directive" to ease back on an FBI investigation.

An attorney for Trump disputed that characterization.

The former FBI director, his face betraying little emotion throughout the three-hour hearing, also gave Trump supporters some ammunition. He confirmed Trump's assertions that the president was not previously a target of the probe. But he also said he had not wanted to say so publicly, in case the inquiry turned in a new direction.

In a stunning admission, Comey acknowledged he asked a Columbia University professor to share with the New York Times the contents of a memo he wrote describing his interactions with the president. Comey said he asked the friend to share the memo because, he thought, it "might prompt the appointment of a special counsel."

"As a private citizen, I felt free to share that," Comey said. "I thought it [was] very important to get it out."

Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, the former U.S. Attorney in Maryland, ultimately did appoint an independent counsel on May 17, eight days after Comey's dismissal. Former FBI director Robert Mueller III is now serving in that role and is overseeing the Justice Department's investigations into Russia.

Supporters of Trump — including his personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz — jumped on Comey's admission, portraying him as a leaker who should be subject to an investigation himself. Trump has complained frequently about officials disclosing negative information about him to the media.

"Mr. Comey admitted that he unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communication with the president," Kasowitz said in a statement. "We will leave it to the appropriate authorities to determine whether these leaks should be investigated along with all the others that are being investigated."

Kasowitz said the president "feels completely vindicated, and is eager to continue moving forward with his agenda, with the business of this country and with this public cloud removed."

The White House response to Comey's testimony was relatively muted. The president did not take to Twitter — his favorite medium for communicating with supporters. Spokeswoman Sarah H. Sanders told reporters that "the president is not a liar," and said it was "frankly insulting" that the question was asked.

In prepared remarks made public a day before the hearing, Comey recounted several meetings in which he said the president appeared to demand his loyalty or suggest that the FBI drop its investigation into ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Kasowitz said Thursday that Trump never asked Comey for his loyalty.

Comey has faced criticism from Republicans who say he should have rejected Trump's requests more forcefully if he felt they were inappropriate. Asked why he didn't do so, Comey said he "was so stunned by the conversation" that the words didn't come to him.

Comey, who also spoke with senators Thursday in a closed session, said his conversation with Trump about Flynn was of "investigative interest" to the FBI. He said agents wanted to figure out "what just happened," and so they chose not to alert the White House about the inappropriateness "until we figured out what are we going to do with this investigatively."

Comey said he spoke with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein to "explain my serious concern about the way in which the president is interacting, especially with the FBI."

It was not clear when that conversation took place, but it was some time later that Rosenstein drafted a memo laying out the case for firing Comey.

That memo, which has been criticized by Democrats, was circulated by the White House on the day of Comey's ouster.

In a separate discussion, Comey said former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, a member of the Obama administration, had instructed him to refer to the investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server as a "matter" rather than an "investigation."

Comey said the instruction was troubling because the "language tracked the way the [Clinton] campaign was talking about the FBI's work."

While Trump supporters and conservative media outlets called attention to that point, it was not a new development: The New York Times noted that conversation, and the request to use the word "matter," in April.

Despite Trump's efforts to move on, the relentless focus on Russia has made it difficult for the administration to advance an agenda in Congress. A repeal of Obamacare, tax reform and infrastructure investment — all issues on which Trump campaigned — have largely stalled on Capitol Hill. Polls show his approval rating near historic lows for a president this early in his term.

The hearing Thursday, broadcast live on network and cable channels, was a major spectacle in Washington and across the country. Bars opened early to broadcast the hearing on large-screen televisions.

Comey confirmed that Flynn was "in legal jeopardy" as a result of his contacts during the transition with Russian officials and his statements about those contacts. It was the first public confirmation that Flynn could face criminal charges, potentially for allegedly making false statements to investigators.

Asked by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas if Flynn had ever deceived FBI agents, Comey said he could not respond in detail because "that was the subject of the criminal inquiry."

Asked if Trump had colluded with Russia, Comey said he could not answer in an open hearing.

"We will establish the facts separate from rampant speculation and lay them out for the American people to make their own judgment," said Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Intelligence Committee chairman. "Only then will we be able to move forward and put this issue to rest."

Sen. Ben Cardin called Comey's testimony "disturbing."

"There is no reason to doubt the integrity of Mr. Comey's recollection of how Mr. Trump repeatedly used the weight of the presidency to ask a law enforcement official to drop an investigation," the Maryland Democrat said in a statement. "Such inappropriate actions cannot be simply written off to a learning curve."

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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