By Devlin Barrett and Ellen Nakashima
WASHINGTON -- Former FBI director James Comey said Thursday he helped reveal details of his private conversations with President Donald Trump because he thought doing so would spur the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the administration - a remarkable admission showing the degree of concern he had about both Russian interference with U.S. politics, and his doubts about the Justice Department’s ability to probe such activity.
Testifying at the Senate intelligence committee, Comey described how details of his private memos about his one-on-one conversations came to light shortly after his dismissal.
“The president tweeted on Friday after I got fired that I’d better hope there are not tapes,” Comey said. He said he woke up on Monday thinking that if there are tapes, there might be corroboration. Comey said he asked “a friend of mine to share” the memo he had written about his conversation with Trump “with a reporter.” He said the person was “a good friend of mine who’s a professor at Columbia Law School. “I thought it might prompt the appointment of a special counsel.”
The friend is Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Columbia Law School. The reporter is Michael Schmidt of the New York Times.
Comey also blasted the Trump administration for bad-mouthing the bureau and his leadership to justify his firing, saying “those were lies, plain and simple’’-a stark challenge to the president’s rationale for his ouster.
A former federal prosecutor, Comey said he took detailed notes of his private talks with the president, a practice that was a departure from his practice with Trump’s predecessor President Obama. Comey said he did so because he wanted to make a clear record of what was said.
He said he took copious notes because he was “honestly concerned’’ that the president might lie about what had been said in their meeting. He kept doing so for future conversations, and the two spoke private a total of nine times before Comey was fired, he said.
Comey sat grim-faced at a witness table before the Senate Intelligence Committee shortly after 10 a.m. as the committee chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., began the hearing by calling for a “very open and candid discussion’’ about the “strained relationship’’ between the president and Comey. Comey’s written account of those discussions, made public on Wednesday, have fueled the debate over whether the president may have attempted to obstruct justice by pressuring the FBI director about a sensitive investigation.
“This is not a witchhunt, this is not fake news,’’ said the senior Democrat on the panel, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. “This is an effort to protect our country from a new threat that quite frankly will not go away anytime soon.’’
Comey began his testimony by saying he became “confused and increasingly concerned’’ about the public explanations by White House officials for his firing on May 9, particularly after the president said he was thinking about the Russia investigation when he decided to fire him.
He wasted little time repudiating White House statements that he was fired in part because of low morale among FBI employees, and those employees’ supposedly soured attitude toward his leadership.
“The administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organization was if disarray, that it was poorly led,’’ Comey said. “Those were lies, plain and simple. and I’m so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them, and I’m so sorry the American people were told them.’’
The former director also said that Attorney General Loretta Lynch asked him last year to refer to the Clinton email probe as a “matter,” rather than an “investigation.
Comey wrote in his testimony that Trump told him that “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty” in a private White House dinner conversation in January.
“I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed,” Comey wrote. “We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.”
Comey said the conversation, in which Trump raised the question of whether Comey intended to stay as FBI Director, despite their three prior discussions about him doing so, raised concerns in his mind.
“My common sense told me what’s going on here is he’s looking to get something in exchange for granting my request to stay in the job,’’ Comey testified.
In testimony broadcast live on national television networks, Comey described his state of mind as he tried to navigate a series of awkward conversations with the president about the investigation into possible coordination between Trump associates and Russian operatives.
The former FBI director made clear he felt the discussions were problematic and improper, in that Trump repeatedly pressing him about specific investigations that involved people close to the president.
After his January dinner when the two discussed loyalty, Comey and the president had another discussion in February at the White House. A number of senior officials met in the Oval Office on Feb. 14 to discuss terrorism. At the end of the meeting, according to Comey, the president asked everyone to leave but Comey.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions lingered behind until the president told him, too, to leave, Comey said.
“My sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn’t be leaving, which is why he was lingering,’’ said Comey. “I knew something was about to happen which I should pay very close attention to.’’
Once they were alone, the president told Comey he hoped he could let go of the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who’d been forced out of that job a day earlier.
“When it comes from the president, I took it as a direction,’’ said Comey. He said he was shocked and concerned about the president’s request, but decided not to tell Sessions about it because he expected Sessions would soon recuse himself from the Russia probe, which he did days later.
Comey did later complain to Sessions that he should not again be left alone with the president
His account made clear that his relationship with Trump was fraught from their very first meeting, which occurred before the inauguation, when he the president-elect that a dossier of unbstantiated allegations against Trump had been circulating around Washington.
“I didn’t want him thinking that I was briefing him on this to sort of hang it over him in some way,’’ said Comey. “He needed to know this was being said, but I was very keen to not leave him with the impression that the bureau was trying to do something to him.’’
Democratic lawmakers have repeatedly tried to learn more about any conversations between Trump and officials in which the president tries to gain help pushing back against the FBI’s Russia investigation.