“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting,” former FBI director James Comey said, under oath, about the president of the United States.
Comey was speaking before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday about one of several conversations he said he had with Donald Trump before the president fired him on May 9. “I knew that there might come a day where I might need a record of our conversations not just to defend myself,” Comey said, “but to defend the FBI.”
The agency has become the center of national political turmoil as it has investigated the concern that the Russian government secretly influenced the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor. In a May 11 interview with Lester Holt, the president cited “this Russia thing” as his terminal concern with Comey’s leadership; in the four weeks since his firing, Comey has become an even bigger pain in the administration’s side, as speculation regarding the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with the Russian government has consumed nearly every political news cycle of the spring so far.
Trump’s heavy hand has backfired. “This Russia thing” isn’t going away anytime soon, and neither is the unceremoniously relieved James Comey, who walked through this morning’s firestorm — and most of the postelection press coverage — unscathed. Once a pariah among Democrats due to his perceived interference (to Hillary Clinton’s great detriment) in the 2016 presidential campaign, Comey is now the only opponent who has routed Trump in the press, time and again, to a low point of public confidence in the administration. Comey, as he made clear at the hearing, is a specter that will haunt this president indefinitely.
Comey has produced dramatic accounts of conversations with Donald Trump, dialogue that seems as unethical as it is surreal. Shortly after Trump fired Comey, the former FBI director leaked a memo that meticulously documented an inappropriate request that compromised Comey’s independence from the White House. The leadership of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees invited Comey to testify in public hearings after he declined previous requests to address Congress only in closed-door sessions. The reversal of Comey’s esteem was immediate: Democrats who once resented him quickly welcomed his efforts to discredit Trump and his closest aides.
Public anticipation achieved fever pitch Wednesday afternoon once the Senate Intelligence Committee released a draft of Comey’s opening remarks, which revealed his grave misgivings about Trump’s ethics. Comey declined to read those remarks aloud at Thursday’s public hearing, instead summarizing his disconcerting impression of Trump. Comey was frank and relaxed in his appearance before the Intelligence Committee. He charmed senators with good humor in his unemployment and humility in his recollections of Trump’s attempts to extract unconditional loyalty from the FBI director, an independent legal figure.
As for the testimony itself: Comey was adamant that the Russian government did, without a doubt, hack national party officials and other election assets. “They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts,” Comey said, rejecting Trump’s and Vladimir Putin’s efforts to dismiss these claims as nothing but superstition. “There should be no fuzz on that whatsoever.” Comey was similarly frank in recounting his discomfort around Trump, who, according to Comey, on a few separate occasions isolated Comey from White House staff and the U.S. attorney general to privately attempt to ward him off his investigations into former national security adviser Mike Flynn, and to publicly announce that Trump specifically was not under investigation by the FBI.
Even so, Comey was remarkably self-effacing in his testimony. He said that the president’s private demeanor often left him stunned, and that he found himself filling “awkward” silences and impasses between him and the president with the vague half-assurance of “honest loyalty” to the president. If Comey failed in any sense, it was in these little moments where he, by his own admission, declined to correct the president’s breathtaking misapprehension of the FBI’s absolute independence from the White House. With regard to the email scandal that shrouded Clinton throughout her failed presidential campaign, however, Comey was far less conditional in accounting for his judgment. He cited Bill Clinton’s unscrupulous June 2016 meeting with then–attorney general Loretta Lynch as a decisive factor in his handling of the investigation.
Despite signs earlier this week that Republican senators were preparing to play hardball with Comey at the public hearing, the committee’s GOP members did little to challenge the former FBI director’s credibility. Comey has become Trump’s one seemingly invincible adversary in the press, and his testimony is just the beginning of a much longer war as Comey’s predecessor, Robert Mueller, prepares his own special probe into Trump’s inner circle and its potential Russian ties at the behest of the Justice Department. Before Thursday’s Senate hearing had even concluded, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders was lashing out at Comey, telling a group of reporters, “The president is not a liar.” The many comparisons to Nixon in the thick of Watergate don’t write themselves.