Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
WASHINGTON – Former FBI Director James Comey told the Senate intelligence committee Thursday that President Donald Trump fired him to change the FBI’s Russia investigation, and New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich said afterward that Comey’s assertion that the White House lied about the reason for his dismissal was alarming.
“I was fired in some way to change, or the endeavor was to change, the way the Russia investigation was being conducted,” Comey testified under oath during a dramatic hearing that brought much of official Washington to a standstill. “That is a very big deal, and not just because it involves me.”
Comey also said he could not trust Trump to tell the truth, leading him to document their private conversations and to leak the details in an effort to spur a separate probe over possible links to Russia.
Under Comey’s leadership, the FBI was investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, but he said he had told Trump three times he was not personally under investigation. He also said he refused Trump’s request to make public the fact that the president was not being investigated
The Justice Department has appointed another former FBI director – Robert Mueller III – as a special counsel to look into any connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Comey on Thursday accused the Trump administration of spreading “lies, plain and simple” about him and the FBI, and said the White House then “chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI” by claiming the bureau was in disorder and morale was poor under his leadership.
Under questioning from Heinrich in the committee two weeks ago, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe disputed the notion that FBI morale was poor under Comey. On Thursday, Heinrich, a Democrat, told the Journal that Comey’s blunt assessment of the White House’s role in the scandal surrounding the former director’s dismissal was reason for concern.
“He basically flat-out said those statements from the administration are a lie – that should have us all concerned,” Heinrich said.
Trump’s personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz, issued responses to the testimony.
“Mr. Comey’s testimony … makes clear that the President never sought to impede the investigation into attempted Russian interference in the 2016 election, and in fact, according to Mr. Comey, the President told Mr. Comey ‘it would be good to find out’ in that investigation if there were some ‘satellite associates of his who did something wrong,’ ” Kasowitz said.
Obstruction of justice?
Comey said he did not know whether Trump’s request of him – made after the president asked everyone else to leave the room – to back off an FBI investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn amounted to obstruction of justice.
“I don’t know, that’s Bob Mueller’s job to sort that out,” Comey said, adding that it “was a very disturbing thing.”
But Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat and former state attorney general, said Trump should be investigated for obstruction of justice.
“Mr. Comey told the American people that their president tried to end an active investigation into members of his own administration,” Udall said. “When Mr. Comey refused to comply with the president’s request to ‘lift the cloud’ of that investigation, the president fired him. And based on what we learned from Mr. Comey’s testimony today, I believe that is appropriate for President Trump’s actions to be investigated for obstruction of justice.”
In a surprising admission on Thursday, Comey revealed that after his firing he actually tried to spur the special counsel’s appointment by giving one of his memos about Trump to a friend of his to release to the press.
“My judgment was I need to get that out into the public square,” Comey said.
Kasowitz, Trump’s lawyer, seized on the disclosure in his statement.
“The Office of the President is entitled to expect loyalty from those who are serving in an administration, and, from before this president took office to this day, it is overwhelmingly clear that there have been and continue to be those in government who are actively attempting to undermine this administration with selective and illegal leaks of classified information and privileged communications,” Kasowitz said. “Mr. Comey has now admitted that he is one of these leakers.”
Deep distrust of president
Comey’s testimony exposed deep distrust by him of the president and he described intense discomfort about their one-on-one conversations, saying he decided he immediately needed to document the discussions in memos.
“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, so I thought it really important to document,” Comey said. “I knew there might come a day when I might need a record of what happened not only to defend myself but to protect the FBI.”
Heinrich said now that the high-profile hearing is over, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will “just keep going” on its inquiry into the Russia issue.
“We need to see Comey’s memos, we need to get answers from (Office of National Intelligence Director Dan) Coats and Admiral Mike Rogers (head of the National Security Agency),” Heinrich said. “I think if they are completely unresponsive about refusing to invoke executive privilege then they are on very thin legal ice.”
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California asked the question that many Republicans have raised in the weeks since Comey’s firing as one media leak followed another revealing Comey’s claims about Trump’s interactions with him.
Discussing the Oval Office meeting where Comey says Trump asked him to back off Flynn, Feinstein asked: “Why didn’t you stop and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong’?”
“That’s a great question,” Comey said. “Maybe if I were stronger I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation I just took it in.”
Thursday’s hearing also included discussion of the federal investigation into Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton’s emails, as Comey disclosed that then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch instructed him to refer to the issue as a “matter,” not an “investigation.”
“That concerned me because that language tracked how the campaign was talking about the FBI’s work and that’s concerning,” Comey said. “We had an investigation open at the time so that gave me a queasy feeling.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.