Comey delivers dramatic rebuke of Trump

In one of the most riveting and historic congressional hearings in decades, Former FBI Director James Comey on Thursday said he believed he was directed by President Trump to end a criminal investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Comey accused Trump of telling lies during a candid and unsparing performance before a Senate panel that drew nationwide attention and packed crowds in bars and other gathering places across the country.

He said the president had lied about the circumstances of his dismissal and the state of the bureau, exposing a grievance at what he described as Trump’s shifting explanations.

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“The administration chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly run,” Comey told a rapt hearing room in his opening remarks.

“Those were lies, plain and simple.”

Comey said he believed he had been fired because the president did not like the way he was handling the bureau’s broader investigation into Trump’s campaign's possible collusion with Russia's election meddling efforts.

Comey stopped short of labeling the president’s conduct as obstruction of justice, a theme Democrats in Washington have been pounding.

He deferred to Robert Mueller, the former FBI director named as special counsel for the Russian investigation after Comey’s firing.

“I don't think it's for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct,” Comey said.

“I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning, but that's a conclusion I'm sure the special counsel will work to try and understand what the intention was there, and whether that's an offense.”

Trump kept quiet throughout the nearly four-hour hearing, defying speculation that he might live tweet the highly anticipated event.

About an hour after Comey left the public stage, however, Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz denied major details of his testimony, saying Trump “never, in form or substance, directed or suggested” that Comey should stop investigating anyone, nor did he demand loyalty from the former director.  

Kasowitz also ripped Comey for what he said was the inappropriate leaking of private conversations the then-FBI director had with the president.

Those are conversations that Trump has since spoken publicly about.

Comey held a packed and tense hearing room at attention as he recounted his version of the interactions leading up to his dismissal — and the steps he took after the president fired him, on May 9.

Comey was so concerned by the president’s conduct, he said, that he took action to prompt the appointment of a special counsel after his dismissal.

Although he had initially kept silent about the president’s request that he let go of the Flynn probe because there was no way to confirm his side of the story, Comey said he had a flash of inspiration when the president raised the possibility of “tapes” of their conversations in a tweet.

Comey said he then decided to leak his notes about the meetings to the media, hoping this would spark an independent counsel.

“I woke up in the middle of the night — because it didn't dawn on me originally — that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might be a tape,” Comey said.

“As a private citizen I thought it important to share that, I wanted to get it out,” he explained, stressing that his memos were unclassified and based on personal recollection.

The memos laid out the Oval Office meeting during which Comey says Trump said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”

Flynn was then under criminal investigation, Comey confirmed.

Mueller was appointed to his post just two days after The New York Times reported Comey’s memos. Comey said he has since turned over his memos to Mueller.

Some Republicans tried to head off allegations of obstruction of justice by pressing Comey on Trump’s use of the word “hope,” as opposed to a more direct order.

“Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where they said or thought they hoped for an outcome?” asked Sen. Jim RischJim RischOvernight Cybersecurity: Mueller impanels grand jury in Russia probe | Researcher who helped stop WannaCry attack detained | Audit finds OPM systems still at risk Overnight Finance: Trump signs Russia sanctions bill, rips Congress | Trump plan would cut legal immigration | Senate confirms labor board pick | House Budget chair running for governor | Regulator takes step to change 'Volcker Rule' Committee leaders: Tax reform should benefit small businesses MORE (R-Idaho).

“You may have taken it as a direction, but that's not what he said.”

Comey said he took the conversation as having been intended as an order.

“The reason I keep saying his words is I took it as a direction,” he said. “This is a president of the United States with me alone saying, 'I hope this.' I took it as, this is what he wants me to do. I didn't obey that, but that's the way I took it.”

Comey gave a careful confirmation that the president himself was not the target of an investigation while he was in charge, something Republicans have pounced upon.

Kasowitz and the Republican National Committee (RNC) said that the testimony “proved what we have known all along: President Trump is not under investigation.”

But Comey indicated for the first time that the president’s conduct fell under the scope of the broader counterintelligence investigation. In his written remarks, Comey acknowledged the possibility that the president could become a target as the investigation progressed.  

The former FBI director also raised implicit questions about Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) SessionsFBI opens tip line requesting information on Charlottesville rally Sessions rails against Chicago during visit to Miami DOJ warrant of Trump resistance site triggers alarm MORE’s conduct, drawing the former senator back into the controversy over Russia.

Comey said that the bureau had anticipated Sessions’s recusal from the probe as early as February. Sessions stepped back in March shortly, after being sworn in, over reports that he didn’t inform lawmakers of a meeting with the Russian ambassador.

“We were aware of facts I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued involvement in a Russia investigation problematic,” Comey said Thursday.

Comey has long been known for passionate and charismatic performances on Capitol Hill — and Thursday was no exception as he discussed his confusion over the White House’s changing reasons for his dismissal.

The White House initially claimed that Comey was fired over his handling of the investigation into Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonAssange meets U.S. congressman, vows to prove Russia did not leak him documents High-ranking FBI official leaves Russia probe OPINION | Steve Bannon is Trump's indispensable man — don't sacrifice him to the critics MORE’s use of a private email server — but Trump later told reporters that Comey wasn’t “doing a good job” and that he was thinking of the Russia investigation when he made the decision. A White House spokesperson argued that the former director had lost the confidence of the “rank-and-file” at the bureau.

At the start, Comey offered a heartfelt farewell to his former colleagues in the J. Edgar Hoover Building, where he is deeply respected and well-liked.

“I am so sorry that I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to you properly,” he said. “It was the honor of my life to serve beside you, to be part of the FBI family, and I will miss it for the rest of my life.”