Five takeaways from Comey’s dramatic testimony

Former FBI Director James Comey captivated Washington on Thursday with his account of the actions that led up to his firing by President Trump.

The hearing began with Comey rebuking the Trump administration for spreading “lies” about the FBI and ended with lawmakers still hungry for questions about the intent of Trump’s conversations with the former FBI chief.

Here are the major takeaways from one of the most dramatic and historic congressional hearings in recent memory.

No smoking gun

There was no major revelation to show that Trump was interfering in any FBI investigations or that Comey had been fired to stop a probe.

That’s good news for the White House and for Trump, whose lawyer noted that Comey had confirmed the president was never under investigation while he was at the FBI.

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“Mr. Comey has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told President Trump privately,” Trump attorney Marc Kasowitz said. “That is that the president was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference.”

Comey said that Trump had cleared out a White House room after a meeting before saying that he hoped the former FBI director could let the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn go.

But he stopped short of saying that Trump’s actions amounted to obstruction of justice, and Republicans said that Trump hoping for a desirable outcome was hardly interfering with a probe.

“The president can take comfort that Comey admitted assuring him that he was not under criminal investigation, and that Comey expressed no opinion that he obstructed,” said Bill Jeffress, a Washington-based lawyer at Baker Botts LLP.

Sessions might be in trouble

Comey made waves when he testified that the FBI had reason to believe that Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard Sessions5 takeaways from Barr’s testimony AG pick Barr emphasizes independence from Trump Hillicon Valley: Trump AG pick signals new scrutiny on tech giants | Wireless providers in new privacy storm | SEC brings charges in agency hack | Facebook to invest 0M in local news MORE would recuse himself from any Russia investigation, ominously referring to “facts” that he could not discuss in an open setting.

Sessions announced his recusal at the beginning of March, under pressure from revelations of previously undisclosed contacts with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak before the presidential election.

“Our judgment, as I recall, was that he was very close and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons,” Comey said Thursday. “We were also aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.”

The disclosure — which Comey may have provided further details on in a closed session with the Senate Intelligence Committee later on Thursday — could spell trouble for Sessions.

“It clearly indicates to me that Comey believes Sessions had problematic involvement in campaign dealings with Russia,” Jeffress said.

Republicans were not divided

Going into the hearing, a big question was whether, in questioning Comey, Republicans wary of Trump’s declining approval rating might show any division.

They did not.

Republicans were largely unified, with many asking hard questions of Comey about his interactions with Trump even as they also at times criticized the president.

Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrManafort developments trigger new ‘collusion’ debate Three GOP Senate candidates, NRA may have illegally coordinated ads: report Cohen to testify publicly before Congress MORE (R-N.C.) set the stage with an opening statement, demanding that questions stay “above politics and partisanship.”

“The American people need to hear your side of the story just as they need to hear the president’s descriptions of events,” Burr said.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Defense: Trump faces blowback over report he discussed leaving NATO | Pentagon extends mission on border | Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions Mnuchin meets with Senate GOP to shore up ranks on Russia sanctions vote MORE (R-Maine) was measured in her criticism of Trump for his "hope" about the Flynn investigation, but indicated that Comey should have warned the president that the meeting was inappropriate.

“Let me make very clear that the president never should have cleared the room and he never should have asked you, as you reported, to let the investigation go. But I remain puzzled by your response,” Collins said.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Trump faces blowback over report he discussed leaving NATO | Pentagon extends mission on border | Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions Rubio slams NY Times for 'absurd criticism' of Bolton over Iran MORE (R-Fla.), who clashed memorably with Trump in last year’s GOP presidential primaries, questioned Comey on leaks to the media.

“Do you ever wonder why, of all the things in the investigation, the only thing never leaked is the fact the president was never personally under investigation?” Rubio asked. 

Comey’s anger is real

Comey began his testimony by accusing Trump administration officials of spreading “lies” about him and the FBI as they sought to qualify the president’s decision to remove him on May 9.

The statement marked a dramatic moment in the hearing and signaled Comey’s concern and anger at the way that the White House explained his ouster.

“The explanations, the shifting explanations, confused me and increasingly concerned me,” Comey said.

“The administration then chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the work force had lost confidence in its leader,” Comey said.

“Those were lies, plain and simple.” 

The testimony is bound to escalate tensions between the former FBI chief and the administration.

Trump’s inner circle has already shot back. As the hearing waged on, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters, “I can definitively say the president is not a liar.”

Kasowitz also took aim at Comey for admitting that he authorized “a close friend” to share the contents of memos that divulged details of his conversations with Trump to the press.

Comey shared the memos, he explained, to prompt the appointment of a special counsel.

“Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the president,” Kasowitz told reporters at the National Press Club.

The cloud hasn’t lifted

While there was good news for Trump at Thursday’s hearing, the bad news is the story isn’t going away and the "cloud" he reportedly hoped Comey would lift before his firing is still hanging over his White House.

Robert Mueller, the special counsel assigned to the case after Comey’s firing, will be investigating the matter in the coming months.

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinLeaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight McConnell blocks House bill to reopen government for second time Senators restart shutdown talks — and quickly hit roadblocks MORE (D-Md.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, responded to the hearing by suggesting that Mueller should examine Trump’s interactions with Comey to determine Trump’s intent.

“I trust special counsel Mueller is looking more deeply into these interactions and their intent to derail a legitimate investigation into criminal activity,” Cardin said.

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerLeaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight Mobile providers at center of privacy storm Senators restart shutdown talks — and quickly hit roadblocks MORE (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, accused Trump during the hearing of engaging “in an effort to influence or at least co-opt the FBI” and signaled at its conclusion that Comey’s testimony left him with more questions.

While some Republicans — including Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamPence on border wall: Trump won't be ‘deterred’ by Dem ‘obstruction’ AG pick Barr emphasizes independence from Trump Leaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight MORE (R-S.C.), often a Trump critic — have dismissed the possibility of obstruction of justice, Rubio told reporters following the hearing that he was not “prepared to reach a conclusion” on the matter.

Such a quest for answers suggests that the Russia investigation will continue to dog the administration.

“Mueller will certainly explore the reasons that Trump sought to end the investigation of Flynn, and if he finds corrupt intent, that is a huge problem for Trump,” Jeffress said.