Former FBI director James Comey rocked Washington Thursday in testimony before Congress on alleged efforts by President Donald Trump to influence the investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election.
The key issue before the Senate Intelligence Committee was whether Trump sought to obstruct the investigation in nine conversations with Comey this year, leading up to his dismissal of the FBI chief on 9 May.
During almost three hours of extraordinarily frank televised statements, Comey described himself as "stunned" by Trump's "very disturbing" and "very concerning" behavior in several private meetings.
Detailing one-on-one talks with a sitting president, which under normal circumstances would never see the light of day, Comey said he took painstaking notes for fear Trump might "lie" about the extraordinary encounters.
That account painted a devastating picture of an untrustworthy president, who at best unknowingly shred the norms of office by pressing him on the probe into Russian election meddling, and at worst may have criminally obstructed justice.
During one White House dinner, Comey recalled that the president asked him for "loyalty" and to lay off his former national security adviser Michael Flynn — who is under criminal investigation over his Russia ties — imploring Comey to "let this go."
Comey indicated that it was now up to a high-powered special prosecutor to determine whether that behavior, and his own sacking, constituted an obstruction of justice, a potentially impeachable offence. Easing months of speculation, Comey did confirm that Trump was not personally the subject of a counterterror or criminal probe when he left the FBI last month.
The White House and Trump's lawyers expressed vindication at some parts of Comey's testimony and lashed out at others. "I can definitely say the president is not a liar and frankly am insulted by that question," said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Trump avoided directly responding to the explosive accusations, defiantly telling supporters at a religious event in the capital: "We are going to fight and win."
After solemnly raising his right hand and vowing to tell the whole truth, a visibly aggrieved Comey kicked-off his testimony with a bid to set the record straight about the state of the bureau he led until he was sacked last month. Lawmakers started the hearing with a call for unity of purpose but the pretense of bipartisanship soon fell away.
Democrats are intent on determining whether Trump's actions amounted to obstruction of justice, while Republicans have zeroed in on Comey's admission he assured the president he was not personally an FBI investigation target.
Harvard law School professor Mark Tushnet said onlookers should keep in mind that Comey knows much more than he can say. "He's saying that when he looks at all the evidence that he knows, that he draws the conclusion that the president was trying to pull him off the investigation of Flynn."
"It's a pretty powerful statement that an investigator with his background, (says) when I look at this investigation, this is what I conclude. So his statement is a big deal." Networks and cable news stations provided blanket coverage of the testimony, and hundreds of people turned out at Washington bars for watch parties, glued to live TV broadcasts of the hearing.
'There's been so much media hype, it's good to actually hear this from the source,' said Sadie Cornelius, 33. "It's good to hear the facts."
Here are the key points of what Comey had to say in his first public appearance since his ouster:
'Direction,' but no order to end probe
Asked if Trump ever demanded the Russia investigation be shut down, Comey flatly replied "No".
But he said that Trump's request at a February 14 Oval Office meeting for him to ease the probe of former national security advisor Michael Flynn sounded like an order.
Trump said, Comey recalled, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy."
"I took it as a direction. He's the president of the United States, with me alone, saying 'I hope this.'... I took it as this is what he wants me to do."
"I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in."
Obstruction of justice?
Comey said it was not up to him but instead the independent special counsel in the Russian probe, Robert Mueller, to decide whether Trump broke a law.
"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."
At the same time, he strongly suggested obstruction.
"It's my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation," he told senators. "I was fired in some way to change, or the endeavor was to change, the way the Russia investigation was being conducted. That is a very big deal."
White House 'lied' over Comey firing
Comey recalled that Trump and the White House gave shifting explanations for why he was dismissed, first saying it was over his handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe last year, then saying it was the Russia investigation, and finally declaring Comey was a poor leader disliked by the FBI staff.
"The administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organisation was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the work force had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple."
Memos on Trump meetings
Comey said his distrust of Trump prompted him to take meticulous notes immediately after each of their nine discussions this year.
"I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document," he said of one such occasion.
He was later surprised when Trump suggested he had taped the conversations.
"I've seen the tweet about tapes. Lordy, I hope there are tapes."
Under attack by Trump, Comey wanted to get his side of the story out. So he leaked his memorandums on the Trump discussions to the New York Times.
"I didn't do it myself for a variety of reasons," he said, instead asking a friendly law professor to share his written recollection of those conversations with a reporter.
"I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel."
Trump disinterested in Russia probe
Comey said there was no doubt, in his mind, about the Russian government's covert attempt to interfere in last year's presidential election. But Trump showed no interest.
"I don't remember any conversations with the president about the Russian election interference," he said.
"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."
A missed date
Comey said Trump himself called him to a dinner on 27 January, during which he asked him for a pledge of loyalty.
"He said, how about 6:30? I said whatever works for you, sir," Comey recalled.
"Then I hung up and called my wife and broke a date with her. I was supposed to take her out to dinner."
"That's one of the all-time great excuses for breaking it," quipped one of the senators at the hearing.
With inputs from AFP
Published Date: Jun 09, 2017 06:58 am | Updated Date: Jun 09, 2017 07:35 am