WASHINGTON — Former FBI Director James Comey came to the Senate intelligence committee ready to unload, one month after President Donald Trump fired him, and he delivered.
Comey talked for close to three hours, answering a range of questions about the FBI’s Russia investigation, and his private interactions with Trump and his thinking about how he handled the Hillary Clinton email probe. And, like his previous hearings, he made it hard for Democrats and Republicans to extract clear victories beyond what he wanted to tell.
Here are the top 10 takeaways from Comey’s Senate intelligence hearing:
1. Trump’s request of Comey may have put him under scrutiny
Comey was clear that the President was never an explicit subject of their Russia probe — but he also said Trump’s private comments urging him to drop the Flynn probe led him to tell his Justice Department colleagues they needed to be careful.
Comey also noted that he had already provided his memos of his private conversations to Trump and that they were the subject of the special counsel’s probe.
Earlier in the hearing, Senate intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr asked if the federal investigation could “find evidence of criminality” not related to the 2016 election of potential collusion with Russia.
“Sure,” Comey said. “In any complex investigation, when you start turning over rocks, sometimes you find things that are unrelated to the primary investigation, that are criminal in nature.”
2. Clinton’s emails were not a “nothing burger”
Comey was not only critical of Republicans during his testimony: GOP reactions were quick to highlight his less than flattering comments about former Attorney General Loretta Lynch and her handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
He testified that Lynch pressed Comey not to call the FBI’s Clinton email an “investigation,” but instead call it a “matter.” Comey complied, telling reporters it was a “matter” — but in the long run, he said it contributed to his urge to distance the FBI from Obama’s Justice Department because of integrity fears.
Clinton, in one of her first public appearances since the election, argued that the incident was a “nothing burger.” It may not be as worrisome to some as the potential of Russian collusion with a US campaign, but Comey, again, made clear Thursday that it was a problem.
3. Trump’s Twitter problem hurt him, a lot
Comey said Thursday that it was Trump’s tweeted implicit threat that he had taped their conversations that directly led him to provide the content of the memos to a friend, who disseminated it to the media.
Comey, in dramatic fashion, said he woke up in the middle of the night, read Trump’s tweet and knew that he had to do something. His stated goal was to win the appointment of a special counsel. And it worked — Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller special counsel, one week after the Trump administration pinned Comey’s firing on Rosenstein.
“I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday night, because it didn’t dawn on me originally, that there might be corroboration for our conversation, there might be a tape,” Comey said. “And my judgment was I needed to get that out into the public square. So I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter.”
Now those memos are a part of Mueller’s investigation.
4. PS: Lordy, Comey wants those tapes out
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey said of his interactions with Trump, adding that he wants them all released publicly.
He also wants his memos released, too. “Sure,” he told Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican.
5. What Comey didn’t say about Attorney General Jeff Sessions
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ undisclosed meetings with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US, led Sessions ultimately to recuse himself from the probe at the beginning of March.
But Comey already suspected Sessions would recuse himself, for reasons he said he couldn’t discuss in an open hearing, weeks before The Washington Post uncovered Sessions’ meetings with Kislyak.
“I concluded it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations,” Comey said of discussions with other top Justice officials on whether they should alert Sessions to Trump’s private request of Comey.
“Our judgment, as I recall, was that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic,” Comey said of Sessions.
6. Comey’s testimony did not settle whether Trump committed obstruction of justice
Democrats and Republicans had plenty to be disappointed with, if they were looking for some clear answers on whether Trump’s answers amounted to obstruction of justice.
Sen. Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican, pressed Comey to state that Trump never “directed” Comey to drop the Flynn investigation. But Comey ducked him, saying “Not in those words, no.”
Earlier in his testimony, Comey told Burr he simply would not draw any conclusions regarding obstruction of justice.
“I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the President was an effort to obstruct. I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning, but that’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel will work towards, to try and understand what the intention was there, and whether that’s an offense,” Comey said.
7. Trump needs to find some friends on the Senate probe
Throughout the onslaught of Russia stories, Trump has made questions of “unmasking” — or having intelligence officials identify redacted names for intelligence collection — and allegations that Obama conducted surveillance of him, the counter story. In the House, intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes is investigating those claims — at the same time the rest of his panel conducts its Russia probe.
But on the Senate side, nobody asked Comey Thursday about unmasking. Some lawmakers who have been helpful to the White House in the probe, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, turned the focus away from Trump and Russia to Clinton’s emails. But nobody carried the White House talking points Thursday.
8. Comey says Trump is liar, a lot
Comey used his opening statement Thursday to detail the reasons why he believed the President was a liar and, then, throughout his testimony, countered Trump’s accounts regularly.
“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,” Comey said. “Those were lies, plain and simple.”
Later, Comey said the entire reason he took careful notes of his meetings with Trump was because he believed the President would lie about them.
“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document,” Comey said.
When did Comey take Trump at his word? When Trump said he fired Comey because of the Russia probe.
9. Trump’s legal counsel claims vindication
Trump’s outside counsel for the Russia probe rebutted some of Comey’s statements and highlighted others that he saw as reflecting positively on the White House.
“Contrary to numerous false press accounts leading up to today’s hearing, Mr. Comey has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told the President Trump privately: that is that The President was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference. He also admitted that there is no evidence that a single vote changed as a result of any Russian interference,” Trump’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz said after Comey’s testimony.
A source told CNN that Kasowitz was walking around the Trump hotel last night following the release of Comey’s prepared testimony handing out cigars saying, “we won. Trump’s in the clear.”
10. The Senate investigation plows on
After the hearing, Burr said he wants to talk to Mueller next week about the Senate and federal probes will co-exist. Burr and ranking Democrat Mark Warner have still not spoken with Mueller, almost one month after he was appointed, and some lawmakers have speculated that the appointment of a special counsel would cut into Congress’ probe.
But at least one committee source said they were confident, after listening to Comey’s testimony, that they would find a way to get Comey’s memos and work side-by-side with Mueller’s probe.