Amidst ongoing controversy and unanswered question about President Donald Trump and his administration’s possible ties to the Russian government, former FBI Director James Comey’s appearance on Capitol Hill Thursday to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee qualified as the biggest news event since Trump’s inauguration. There were long lines at bars all around Washington, D.C., as people waited eagerly to hear what Comey had to say after President Trump fired him May.
Over the course of his almost three-hour testimony, Comey answered questions from both Democratic and Republican Senators about his one-on-one meetings with Trump, how his handling of the Russian investigation compared to his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and more. Though Comey declined to answer certain questions about the ongoing investigation in a public setting, he still managed to provide some sharp remarks. Here are the highlights.
“Those were lies, plain and simple”
On Wednesday, ahead of his testimony, Comey’s opening statement was provided to both Congress and the American public yesterday. Most of the hearing involved senators quizzing or interrogating various lines from that statement, but Comey took a different tack with his opening remarks. He publicly apologized to his former FBI colleagues for not getting the chance to say goodbye to them “properly” and said that in the wake of his firing, President Trump’s administration “chose to defame me and the FBI by saying it was disarray.” This clearly stung Comey, who called such denigrations of FBI professionalism “lies, plain and simple.”
Comey took notes on meetings in case President Trump lied
Comey had nine one-on-one conversations with President Trump in the months after Trump’s election, whereas he only had two one-on-one conversations with President Barack Obama during his entire eight-year term. Also unlike Obama, Comey felt compelled to take notes on all of his meetings with President Trump, which are recounted in the opening statement he provided Wednesday. As he explained to Senator Mark Warner during the hearing, Comey took notes because “I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, so I thought it really important to document.”
Why didn’t he tell Trump “no”?
After a group meeting on Feb. 14, President Trump kept Comey behind and asked him, one-on-one, to let go of an investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. According to Comey’s account of the event, he refused to do so, saying only that he agreed with the president that Flynn was “a good guy.” One question Comey was repeatedly asked was why he didn’t speak up more forcefully about the president’s inappropriate conduct in this instance. Why not tell the president it was out of line to try an influence an ongoing investigation in such a way? Comey chalked it up to a mix of shock and intimidation.
“I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in,” Comey told Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.). “I was playing in my mind, what should my response be? That’s why I very carefully chose my words. So I said, ‘I agree he’s good guy’ as a way of saying, ‘I’m not agreeing with what you just asked me to do.’ Maybe other people would be stronger in that instance, but it’s how I conducted myself. Maybe if I did it again I’d do it better.”
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes”
A few days after firing Comey, President Trump tweeted this ominous-sounding message: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump’s tweet led to speculation that the president might be secretly taping Oval Office conversations, but on Thursday Comey made it clear that he’s not scared of anything that might be on tape. He first told Sen. Feinstein, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes”; later reiterated to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-Va.) that the president can go ahead and “release all the tapes, I’m good with it.”
“Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
At one point, Comey ended up having an interesting exchange with Sen. Angus King (I-ME). Several senators were curious about Comey’s account the Oval Office meeting where he and the president discussed Michael Flynn. Did President Trump’s wording (“I hope you can let this go”) really translate to an order? By Comey’s reckoning, the context and the power of the person speaking means the passive wording did carry an order behind it. To explain, Comey ended up making a historical reference that Sen. King also understood.
“It rings as my ears kind of like, ‘who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’” Comey said.
“I was just going to quote that, King said. “In 1170, Henry II says, ‘who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ And the next day the priest Thomas Becket was killed. It’s exactly the same situation, we’re thinking along the same lines.”
In other words, when a head of state makes his wishes clear, no matter how it’s exactly phrased, the expectation is those desires will be acted upon.