- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2017

Capping one of the most anticipated Capitol Hill confrontations in years, fired FBI Director James B. Comey told a Senate panel on Thursday that he hopes there are Oval Office tapes to back up his assertion that President Trump asked him to drop the probe into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, saying he feared the president would lie about their private exchanges.

In a riveting nearly three-hour session that provided ammunition both for the president and for his detractors, Mr. Comey directly accused Mr. Trump of lying about why he was dismissed and said he interpreted Mr. Trump’s comments in a one-on-one conversation as a “direction” to quash the FBI probe into Mr. Flynn’s ties to Russia. He said he was also convinced that he was fired by Mr. Trump because he refused to drop the Russia investigation.

But Mr. Comey conceded that he received no direct order to drop the investigation, acknowledged that he was stunned and did not raise his objections to Mr. Trump’s remarks, and revealed that he purposely leaked his contemporaneous memos on their conversations after his firing last month explicitly in the hopes of forcing the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to look into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties. Mr. Comey would not say Mr. Trump tried to obstruct justice. He deferred that judgment to special counsel Robert Mueller.

Mr. Comey insisted that any secret recording of his dealings with the president — which Mr. Trump hinted could exist in a Twitter post last month — would back up his version.

“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Mr. Comey said.

Asked directly by Sen. Angus King, Maine independent, if Mr. Trump’s answer to a reporter that he had never tried to interfere in the Flynn probe was accurate, Mr. Comey said simply, “I don’t believe it is.”

VOTE NOW: Who do you trust more: President Trump or James Comey?

Mr. Trump stayed uncharacteristically silent throughout the day, but his attorney, Marc Kasowitz, spoke to reporters shortly after the open hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Mr. Kasowitz said Mr. Comey’s testimony proved that Mr. Trump never colluded with the Kremlin during his election campaign.

“Contrary to numerous false press accounts leading up to today’s hearing,” Mr. Kasowitz said, “Mr. Comey has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told the president privately: The president was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference.”

He directly challenged other parts of Mr. Comey’s detail-rich testimony, denying Mr. Comey’s contention that Mr. Trump repeatedly asked for his loyalty or that he even hinted that the Flynn probe should be dropped.

“The president never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone, including suggesting that Mr. Comey ‘let Flynn go,’” said Mr. Kasowitz, who did not take questions from reporters after reading the statement.

Still, the fired director described a twisted and uncomfortable relationship with a president he appeared to deeply distrust from the beginning — one reason he began to take notes of every one of his interactions with Mr. Trump.

In some of his most pointed words, Mr. Comey flatly rejected the White House’s initial explanation for his May 9 firing.

SEE ALSO: James Comey: Loretta Lynch’s request to call Clinton probe a ‘matter’ ‘confused me and concerned me’

“Although the law required no reason at all to fire an FBI director, the administration then chose to defame me, and more importantly the FBI, by saying the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader,” Mr. Comey said. “Those were lies, plain and simple.”

The accounts of Mr. Trump and Mr. Comey clashed on even the smallest of matters. The president told NBC interviewer Lester Holt that Mr. Comey called him to have dinner together at their fateful first meeting after Mr. Trump took office in January. Mr. Comey said Thursday that it was Mr. Trump who called him with the invitation, adding he had to break a date with his wife to attend the dinner.

There were some uncomfortable moments for Democrats as well. Mr. Comey recounted how the Obama administration tried to shape the tone of his criminal investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, with Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch successfully pressuring the bureau to call the probe a “matter,” not an “investigation.”

The hottest spotlight

In a Senate hearing room filled beyond capacity — people were reportedly lining up for the limited number of public seats at 4 a.m. — lawmakers and members of the public acknowledged that they were eager to hear directly from Mr. Comey. The committee’s unprecedented ninth public hearing of the year was packed with international press and broadcast live on several major networks, drawing comparisons to hearings over Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair.

Committee Chairman Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, started the proceedings by pointing out disputes between Mr. Comey and Mr. Trump.

“The American people need to hear your side of the story, just as they need to hear the president’s description of events,” Mr. Burr said.

While Mr. Comey spoke without notes and sat alone at the witness table, Preet Bharara, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who was dismissed by Mr. Trump in March, was seated nearby.

The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, insisted that the hearing was not an attempt to attack the president but to get to the bottom of Russian meddling in the election and the Trump administration’s behavior in light of the FBI’s investigation.

“Let me be clear: This is not a witch hunt. This is not fake news. It is an effort to protect our country from a new threat that will not go away anytime soon,” Mr. Warner said.

He asked Mr. Comey about the public “smear” of his character during and after his dismissal from the FBI and asked him to explain whey he documented his interactions with Mr. Trump in such detailed memos.

“The circumstances, the subject matter and the person I was interacting with” were all factors, Mr. Comey said. He added that he was alone with the president-elect discussing weighty and sensitive matters, and he had doubts about the man he was dealing with.

From their first encounter, “I was honestly concerned that [Mr. Trump] might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it was important to document it,” Mr. Comey said.

Overall allegations?

Reviews on Mr. Comey’s highly anticipated appearance — and its impact on the Russia investigation and the Trump presidency — were decidedly mixed.

Democrats who had slammed Mr. Comey for his handling of the Clinton email investigation embraced him as a star witness and paragon of integrity. But other than re-enforcing the image of the president as unreliable — which most Democrats already believe — Mr. Comey’s often ambiguous accounts and tentative conclusions provided little traction for talk of legal action or even an impeachment drive against the Republican president.

There were also several uncomfortable moments for the press that has covered the story exhaustively, and vindication for Trump supporters who complain that too many of the most sensational stories are based on unidentified, unreliable sources.

Several major news outlets predicted that Mr. Comey would not back Mr. Trump’s claims that he was told three times he was not a source of the Russia investigation, but the former FBI chief corroborated the bulk of Mr. Trump’s account.

Mr. Comey also dismissed a major New York Times scoop claiming his campaign repeatedly contacted Russian agents.

“In the main — it was not true,” Mr. Comey said of the story.

He also refused to clearly categorize his interactions with Mr. Trump as obstruction of justice.

‘Not in those words’

About an hour into the hearing, Sen. James E. Risch, Idaho Republican, pressed Mr. Comey about the exact wording of Mr. Trump’s request for him to drop the Flynn probe. Mr. Risch focused on the ambiguity of the words Mr. Comey says Mr. Trump used in his memos.

“Did he direct you to let it go?” Mr. Risch asked.

“Not in those words,” Mr. Comey replied.

Mr. Comey further explained that Mr. Trump asked for “loyalty” and that he found it “very disturbing.” But he declined to say whether he considered the request an obstruction of justice.

Mr. Comey’s written testimony to the committee, released Wednesday, detailed memos that the former director kept, describing a number of what he deemed troubling interactions with the president.

Mr. Comey acknowledged they had a rough first interaction on Jan. 6, during the presidential transition, when the FBI director went to brief Mr. Trump on a “salacious” but unsubstantiated memo compiled by a former British intelligence official claiming Mr. Trump had hired prostitutes and engaged in unusual sexual practices in a Russian hotel.

“Our relationship didn’t get off to a great start given the conversation I had to have on Jan. 6,” Mr. Comey said.

When senators inquired about the anti-Trump dossier, Mr. Comey declined to comment in a public setting.

Mr. Comey revealed for the first time that he had turned over the memos to Mr. Mueller and mentioned the special counsel’s investigation several times.

“That’s Bob Mueller’s job to sort that out,” he said in response to one of the questions regarding obstruction of justice.

On the way out of the hearing, many Republicans were heard saying they hoped Washington could now move on and give Mr. Trump a chance to do his job without Russian election probes distracting him. Democrats, meanwhile, sounded like they were gearing up to hear what Mr. Mueller might do next.

Stephen Dinan and Andrea Noble contributed to this report.

• Dan Boylan can be reached at dboylan@washingtontimes.com.

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