He presented himself as anything but a fearsome G-man. He wondered what he might have done differently “if I were stronger.” He confessed that he had hustled his adversary off the phone in “kind of a slightly cowardly way” to avoid refusing his demands. He was “worried very much” about being in the mold of his most infamous predecessor, J. Edgar Hoover, by seeming to hold his superior hostage over salacious allegations about his sex life.
But in more than two hours of steady, soft-spoken Senate testimony, former FBI Director James Comey nevertheless delivered a quietly devastating indictment of President Donald Trump, confiding that he had kept contemporaneous notes of their every conversation for one overriding and unflinching reason: “I was honestly concerned that he might lie.”
Comey’s testimony may or may not go down in the annals of great Washington scandals. His Republican interlocutors on the Senate Intelligence Committee succeeded in eliciting his repeated confirmation that, so far as he knew, Trump has never been personally under FBI investigation for possible collusion with the Russians — or anything else, for that matter. Further, Comey repeatedly conceded that neither Trump’s efforts to get him to confirm that fact publicly, nor the president’s single request to back off investigating the Russia-related activities of the fired national security adviser Michael Flynn, had ever impeded the ongoing inquiry that is now in the hands of special counsel Robert Mueller.
But Comey’s appearance Thursday will certainly rank with the great self-deprecating performances of past witnesses like Lt. Col. Oliver North in the Iran-Contra scandal, or Sen. Sam Ervin, chairman of the Watergate select committee, who liked to insist that he was “just a country lawyer.” In his own telling, Comey was just an ordinary guy doing his job in extraordinary circumstances, a bona fide Eagle Scout who, gosh darn it, is far too modest to say so out loud.
“My mother raised me not to say things like this about myself, so I’m not gonna,” Comey said when Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) asked him whether he wanted to say anything about why people should believe him and not the president. Similarly, Comey said he would have to leave it to others to say whether the president had obstructed justice.
Yet the damage was already done. Comey had not finished testifying before the White House deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was moved to insist, “I can definitively say the president is not a liar. I think it’s frankly insulting.” Such protestations from any White House are never a good thing. (See Richard Nixon’s, “I am not a crook,” and Bill Clinton’s, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” just for starters).
In fact, Comey’s testimony repeatedly and emphatically contradicted Trump’s account of events on multiple points: It was Trump, he said, not himself who asked to have a dinner on Jan. 27 (he had to break a date with his wife to do so), at which the president then demanded Comey’s “loyalty.” Contrary to Trump’s public insistence that he never asked Comey to back off the Flynn investigation, Comey testified that on Valentine’s Day the president cleared the Oval Office of the attorney general and other officials and then did just that.
At one point, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) told Comey that he found Trump’s request about Flynn — “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go” — to be “a pretty light touch” from someone who might be trying to block an investigation. But neither Lankford nor any of his other Republican colleagues questioned the veracity or specificity of Comey’s essential account — something that the low-key, Joe Friday tenor of the former director’s testimony would have made all the tougher to do in any case.
For all his insistence that he had been “stunned” by Trump’s request to curtail the Flynn inquiry, Comey made it clear that he had never been too stunned to deploy the tactics of a skilled Washington infighter. When the president tweeted that he might have tapes of the conversations, Comey testified that he awoke in the middle of the night and thought, “Holy cow, there might be tapes.” That impelled him to leak his own memos (which he had deliberately written with unclassified status, so they could be shared easily within the FBI) to the press through a friend, in the explicit hope that they might prompt the appointment of a special prosecutor.
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” he told Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) at one point.
And in a subtle window into the investigator’s art, Comey suggested that he had refrained from sharing what he considered to be the president’s improper requests with agents working on the Russia case not only to avoid infecting their inquiry, but because he believed the president’s request was “a very disturbing development, really important to our work.” That implies that Comey feared the president’s own words and actions might eventually become the subject of official inquiry — as they presumably now have.
Comey’s humble demeanor did not keep him from defending his honor, as he hotly did at the outset of his testimony, when he confessed to confusion and ultimately outrage at the Trump administration’s shifting explanations for his firing. “Although the law required no reason at all to fire an FBI director,” he 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 workforce had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple.”
But for the most part, Comey portrayed himself less as a threatening Torquemada than as a shocked straight arrow, struggling to cope with a president whose behavior and demeanor had unnerved and confounded him from their first meeting.
When Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) asked Comey to confirm that he had told Trump at their first meeting on Jan. 6 at Trump Tower that he was not the subject of any “counterintelligence investigation” into Russian meddling, Comey took some pains to say that the context was more specific. He had just briefed Trump on the contents of an unverified dossier alleging that the Russians had compromising evidence about Trump’s personal behavior.
“I was briefing him about salacious and unverified material,” Comey said. “It was in a context of that that he had a strong and defensive reaction about that not being true. My reading of it was it was important for me to assure him we were not personally investigating him.” He added, “It was very important because it was, first, true, and second, I was worried very much of being in kind of a — kind of J. Edgar Hoover-type situation. I didn’t want him thinking I was briefing him on this to sort of hang it over him in some way.
Hoover, who ran the FBI for just shy of 48 years, was well known for keeping secret files that he used to intimidate a range of politicians and public figures.
At another point, Feinstein wanted to know why Comey had not rejected Trump’s request about Flynn out of hand.
“Now, here’s the question,” she said. “You’re big, you’re strong. I know the Oval Office and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn’t you stop and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you.”
“It’s a great question,” Comey replied. “Maybe if I were stronger, I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in.”
When Feinstein asked Comey why he had told Trump in a March 30 phone conversation that he would see what he could do about getting the word out that Trump was not personally under investigation, Comey again suggested his response had been nothing to brag about.
“It was kind of a cowardly way of trying to avoid telling him, we’re not going to do that,” he said. “That I would see what we could do. It was a way of kind of getting off the phone, frankly, and then I turned and handed it to the acting deputy attorney general.”
Comey made it clear that he was still smarting from the firestorm of criticism that greeted his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server last year, acknowledging that “it caused a whole lot of personal pain for me.” But he insisted that, even knowing all he knows now, he would not have handled the matter differently. He acknowledged that Clinton herself might have fired him if she had won.
In an answer to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), about whether Trump had ever expressed serious concern about the underlying issue at hand — the deliberate Russian interference in last year’s election — Comey turned passionate, displaying more emotion than in any other response.
“The reason this is such a big deal,” he said. “We have this big messy wonderful country where we fight with each other all the time. But nobody tells us what to think, what to fight about, what to vote for except other Americans. And that’s wonderful and often painful. But we’re talking about a foreign government that using technical intrusion, lots of other methods tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is a big deal. And people need to recognize it. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America, which I hope we all love equally.”
For at least a fleeting moment, that seemed to be a statement on which all members of the committee might agree.