The Russia Connection

Takeaways From Comey's Prepared Testimony for the Senate Select Intelligence Committee

By Susan Hennessey, Quinta Jurecic, Matthew Kahn
Wednesday, June 7, 2017, 2:36 PM

The Senate Intelligence Committee has released the prepared testimony of former FBI Director James Comey in advance of tomorrow’s highly-anticipated hearing. Below is an overview of some of the more significant elements of Comey’s account.

Comey’s statement covers only his interactions with the President.

Comey has elected to constrain his testimony only to his personal interactions with President Trump. He does not comment on the larger substance of the Russia investigation nor does he reference the circumstances of his own firing. Comey says up front that he has not included “every detail” of his interactions but has included information that “may be relevant to the Committee.” In other words, this is not the whole story. It’s what Comey thinks is the most relevant part of the story.

Comey expressly notes that he “can recall nine one-on-one conversations with President Trump in four months—three in person and six on the phone.” In his statement, he recounts all three of the in-person private meetings and two of the phone calls (meaning four phone calls are not described). The events described are the:

  • January 6 briefing with then President-elect Trump, at Trump Tower, wherein Comey privately briefs Trump of the infamous “Steele dossier.”
  • January 27 dinner at the White House, wherein Trump requests assurances of Comey’s “loyalty” which Comey declines to provide.
  • February 14 meeting in the Oval Office, during which Trump pressures Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn.
  • March 30 phone call wherein Trump requests Comey help him clear the “cloud” of the Russia investigation
  • April 11 phone call wherein Trump asks what Comey has done to “get out” to the public that Trump is not personally under investigation.

Comey describes three exchanges that appear to be the basis of Trump’s claim of reassurances that he wasn’t under investigation.

In his letter dismissing Comey, Trump references Comey having informed him “on three separate occasions … that I am not under investigation.” Comey’s statement does indicate three instances on which he spoke with Trump on the topic. The first instance took place on January 6, when Comey privately briefed Trump on the allegations contained in the Steele dossier at Trump Tower; in an effort to assure Trump that the intelligence community did not consider the dossier to be entirely reliable, Comey informed the President-elect that the FBI “did not have an open counter-intelligence case on him.” The second instance took place at the January 27 dinner where Trump asked for Comey’s loyalty and during which Comey reiterated what he had already told Trump regarding the lack of a counterintelligence investigation into Trump personally in relation to the dossier. The third instance occurred when Trump called Comey at the FBI on March 30. After Trump asked about the House Intelligence Committee’s recent hearing on the Russia investigation, Comey stated that he had told congressional leadership that the FBI was not investigating Trump personally—as he had already informed Trump.

In his NBC interview with Lester Holt, Trump stated that one of Comey’s assurances took place over dinner and two over the phone, one when he called Comey and one when Comey called him. Two of the interactions Comey describes—his conversation with Trump at the January 27 dinner and during the March 30 phone call—are at least somewhat consistent with Trump’s statement to Holt. However, Comey does not list any instance in which he called Trump and informed him that he was not under investigation. Instead, the three instances he lists in which the two had conversations along those lines consist of the January 6 briefing, the January 27 dinner, and the March 30 phone call. However, as noted, Comey only describes two out of six private phone calls, so it is possible—though, given his apparently deep concerns about appearing too close to the White House, unlikely—that he discussed the matter with Trump in a separate phone call that he initiated, as Trump described to Holt.

Comey offers very direct assessments of the President’s conduct but stops short of accusing him of obstructing justice.

The most significant part of the statement on this point comes after Comey details the previously reported Oval Office conversation regarding Michael Flynn. He then writes, “I had understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December."

Taken alone, this is a startlingly direct statement with profound implications. But Comey’s testimony is less about making a particular case, and instead describes a general course of conduct—one that clearly alarmed Comey from the outset and grew more concerning over time.

Comey describes the January 27 dinner with Trump at the White House, in which he expected others to be in attendance and was surprised when he arrived to discover he and Trump were dining alone. At the dinner, Trump asked Comey whether he wanted to remain as FBI Director. This surprised Comey because he had already reassured the president he intended to stay for the remainder of his term. When Comey realized the meeting would be one-on-one and Trump began discussing his job, Comey’s instinct told him that the dinner was “an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship.” As the Times previously reported, during that dinner Trump asked Comey for loyalty. Comey describes an intensely awkward exchange in which he agrees to provide “honest loyalty” but was uncertain he and Trump had the same understanding of the term. As the Times story, notes that Trump’s account of the dinner was different. In his NBC interview, Trump told Lester Holt that Comey requested the dinner to discuss keeping his job.

Comey also notes that Trump again addressed the salacious content in the Steele dossier on which Comey had briefed him on January 6. The president said “he was considering ordering [Comey] to investigate the alleged incident to prove it didn't happen,” a suggestion Comey pushed back on by saying such an investigation might give the impression that the FBI was investigating Trump personally and that “it was very hard to prove a negative.”

Apart from Trump’s specific request that Comey drop the investigation into Flynn during the February 14 Oval Office meeting, Comey adds quite a bit of detail to that interaction which speaks to the general atmospherics of Comey’s discomfort with Trump’s interactions with the FBI. Comey’s version of the story largely tracks with the previously published reporting from the The New York Times: Following a counterterrorism briefing with other participants, President Trump directed Comey to stay behind so he could speak to him privately, and told him after the door was closed that Flynn “hadn’t done anything wrong in speaking to the Russians,” that Flynn was a “good guy,” and that, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

But Comey’s testimony also creates an impression that the encounter generated some apprehension on the part of Trump’s closest advisors at the time. After Trump requested to speak to Comey alone, Attorney General Sessions lingered behind, as did Jared Kushner, and Trump had to dismiss them each specifically. And Chief of Staff Reince Priebus interrupted the meeting mid-way by opening the door and was dismissed again by Trump. When Comey departed, he walked by “the large group of people waiting there, including Mr. Priebus and the Vice President.” Comey says the interaction was “very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.”

Comey’s account of two phone calls–on March 30 and April 11–also indicate his deepening discomfort with Trump’s contacts. In both contacts, Trump repeatedly described the Russia investigation as a “cloud” over his presidency. On March 30, Trump asked about Comey’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee during which Comey confirmed the existence of an investigation into potential collusion between Russia and individuals associated with the Trump campaign. When Comey assured Trump that he had briefed the leadership that Trump wasn’t being personally investigated, Trump responded “repeatedly” that “[w]e need to get that fact out,” and indicated that, while he hadn’t done anything wrong if “satellite” associates of his had engaged in wrongdoing, “it would be good to get that out” too. Trump then abruptly told Comey that he had not mentioned “the McCabe thing” because Comey had vouched for the then-Deputy FBI Director, an apparent reference to a donation by then-Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to the state Senate campaign of McCabe’s wife. Trump closed the conversation by emphasizing that he “hoped” Comey could “find a way” to inform the public that he was not being investigated.

On April 11, the President again called Comey and asked what he had done to “‘get out” that the president was not personally under investigation—to which Comey responded that had notified Boente. The president replied that “the cloud” was interfering with his ability to do his job and suggested that he might have “his people” reach out to Boente. Comey said that the appropriate course would be to go through Boente, by then the Acting Attorney General on Russia-related matters. (Contacting Boente would have been consistent with a 2009 memo by Eric Holder limiting interaction between the White House and DOJ, which was still in effect at least as of the week of May 15.) Comey specifically advised the president that the White House Counsel should reach out to Justice Department leadership.

The president said he would instruct White House Counsel Don McGahn, adding, “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.” Comey did not try to clarify what the president meant by “that thing,” but affirmed that instructing the White House Counsel to contact DOJ was the appropriate method. Trump said he would do that and the call ended. Comey says this contact was the last time he spoke to the president.

Comey’s responses to the president’s conduct demonstrate his increasing concerns.

Comey’s note-taking began after his one-on-one meeting with Trump to brief him on the Steele dossier on January 6. He “felt compelled to document” that encounter, and all others moving forward. (This practice is consistent with the many emails he sent documenting his concerns during the Bush administration.) He notes that while he intentionally documented all his private interactions with Trump, he never took such steps during his time as FBI Director under Obama.

Comey also began sharing his memos with FBI leadership. Following the January 27 dinner, Comey prepared a “detailed” memo recording the interaction immediately. He states that he circulated the memo to senior leadership at the Bureau, though he does not specify which officials he included.

Following the February 14 Oval Office conversation regarding Flynn, Comey “immediately prepared an unclassified memo of the conversation” and discussed the meeting with FBI senior leadership. Comey and the Bureau leadership also decided not the tell Attorney General Sessions about the substance of his interaction with Trump, saying that it “made little sense” in light of their expectation that Sessions would recuse himself from the Russia investigation entirely (which he later did). They also decided at that time not to tell Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente because he would not be in the role for long.

Without informing Sessions about the substance of the conversation, Comey spoke with Sessions shortly after the Oval Office meeting to “implore him” to prevent future direct contact between the president and the FBI Director, telling him that the meeting in the Oval Office represented inappropriate contact. According to Comey, the Attorney General did not respond.

Following the March 30 phone call during which Trump asked Comey to “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigation, Comey immediately informed then-Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente of the conversation and said he would await Boente’s guidance. He did not hear back from Boente before the President’s next call documented in his testimony, on April 11. Comey does not describe any steps he may have taken in response to the April 11 call. This is the last time Comey spoke to Trump.

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There are plenty of questions left unanswered, some but not all of which will surely be covered tomorrow. But suffice to say, Comey has put plenty on the table for the Senate Intelligence Committee to chew on.