On Wednesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the text of the opening statement former FBI director James Comey is prepared to give on Thursday. It contains a number of statements likely to be seized upon by reporters and Democrats in order to maintain that President Trump engaged in obstruction of justice by firing Comey, purportedly in an attempt to kill the Trump-Russia investigation. But the testimony shows precisely the opposite: Trump didn't fire Comey to cover anything up, but out of anger that Comey wouldn't clear him; Trump was assured by Comey repeatedly that he was not under investigation by the FBI; Trump wasn't attempting to shut down the campaign collusion investigation.
Comey began by describing his first meeting with then-President-Elect Trump on January 6 at Trump Tower, at which he personally briefed Trump about an intelligence community assessment concerning Russian interference in the 2016 election. Comey says he alone briefed Trump on the details, out of respect for Trump’s privacy; this would have included the dossier material talking about Trump’s supposed Russian “pee-tape.” Comey explained that he was worried that the briefing might lead Trump to believe he was under investigation by the FBI on a counterintelligence level. He also explained that Trump was correct that he was not under personal investigation:
In that context, prior to the January 6 meeting, I discussed with the FBI’s leadership team whether I should be prepared to assure President-Elect Trump that we were not investigating him personally. That was true; we did not have an open counter-intelligence case on him. We agreed I should do so if circumstances warranted. During our one-on-one meeting at Trump Tower, based on President-Elect Trump’s reaction to the briefing and without him directly asking the question, I offered that assurance.
This confirms Trump’s account, at least in part.
According to Comey, he spoke with Trump one-on-one nine separate times in four months, “three in person and six on the phone.” Comey mentioned the January 27 dinner at which Trump supposedly asked for Comey’s assurance once again that he was not under investigation, and received it, and at which Trump suggested that Comey asked to retain his job. Comey claimed that Trump asked him for a loyalty oath during the dinner. Here is Comey’s fuller account:
It turned out to be just the two of us, seated at a small oval table in the center of the Green Room. Two Navy stewards waited on us, only entering the room to serve food and drinks. The President began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI Director, which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to. He said that lots of people wanted my job and, given the abuse I had taken during the previous year, he would understand if I wanted to walk away. My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch. I replied that I loved my work and intended to stay and serve out my ten-year term as Director. And then, because the set-up made me uneasy, I added that I was not “reliable” in the way politicians use that word, but he could always count on me to tell him the truth. I added that I was not on anybody’s side politically and could not be counted on in the traditional political sense, a stance I said was in his best interest as the President. A few moments later, the President said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. 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. At one point, I explained why it was so important that the FBI and the Department of Justice be independent of the White House. I said it was a paradox: Throughout history, some Presidents have decided that because “problems” come from Justice, they should try to hold the Department close. But blurring those boundaries ultimately makes the problems worse by undermining public trust in the institutions and their work. Near the end of our dinner, the President returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, “I need loyalty.” I replied, “You will always get honesty from me.” He paused and then said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” I paused, and then said, “You will get that from me.” As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase “honest loyalty” differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further. The term – honest loyalty – had helped end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he should expect.
This isn’t good for Trump, obviously; it raises suspicions that he was looking for some sort of quid pro quo from Comey. With that said, he apparently didn’t receive one, and Comey didn’t find the event objectionable enough to proffer his resignation.
Comey then moved on to his February 14 counterterrorism briefing of Trump. After this briefing, Trump apparently shooed everyone from the room except for Comey, at which point this conversation supposedly transpired:
He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President. He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied only that “he is a good guy.” (In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my term at FBI.) I did not say I would “let this go.” The President returned briefly to the problem of leaks. I then got up and left out the door by the grandfather clock, making my way through the large group of people waiting there, including Mr. Priebus and the Vice President. I immediately prepared an unclassified memo of the conversation about Flynn and discussed the matter with FBI senior leadership. I had understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December. I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign. I could be wrong, but I took him to be focusing on what had just happened with Flynn’s departure and the controversy around his account of his phone calls. Regardless, it was very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.
Again, this is damning for Trump, but not nearly as damning as the press would like it to be. It sounds like Comey was concerned about Trump stepping on his investigation into Flynn’s phone conversation, not into the 2016 election. That means there is still no evidence that Trump cares about quashing an investigation into campaign collusion, even according to Comey. The conversation wasn’t reported to Attorney General Jeff Sessions because Comey assumed he would be recused. Instead, Comey explained, “After discussing the matter, we decided to keep it very closely held, resolving to figure out what to do with it down the road as our investigation progressed. The investigation moved ahead at full speed.”
Shortly thereafter, according to Comey, he asked Sessions to provide a barrier between Comey and Trump. “I told the AG that what had just happened – him being asked to leave while the FBI Director, who reports to the AG, remained behind – was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply. For the reasons discussed above, I did not mention that the President broached the FBI’s potential investigation of General Flynn,” Comey said.
Next up, Comey referred to a phone call on March 30. Here’s his description:
On the morning of March 30, the President called me at the FBI. He described the Russia investigation as “a cloud” that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to “lift the cloud.” I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our having done the work well. He agreed, but then re-emphasized the problems this was causing him.
Trump asked Comey why he wouldn’t just say that Trump wasn’t personally under investigation; Comey explained that it might create a duty to correct if Trump fell under investigation (a fact Comey should know well, given that he did precisely that to Hillary Clinton). Trump then continued:
The President went on to say that if there were some “satellite” associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out that we weren’t investigating him….He finished by stressing “the cloud” that was interfering with his ability to make deals for the country and said he hoped I could find a way to get out that he wasn’t being investigated.
Finally, Comey turned to a phone call that took place on April 11. During that phone call, Trump reiterated that he wanted Comey to reassure the public that Trump was not personally under investigation. Comey recounted:
He replied that “the cloud” was getting in the way of his ability to do his job. He said that perhaps he would have his people reach out to the Acting Deputy Attorney General. I said that was the way his request should be handled. I said the White House Counsel should contact the leadership of DOJ to make the request, which was the traditional channel. He said he would do that and added, “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.” I did not reply or ask him what he meant by “that thing.” I said only that the way to handle it was to have the White House Counsel call the Acting Deputy Attorney General.
Again, the conversation about “that thing” sounds dirty, but it’s easily explained as Trump thinking he had Comey’s loyalty, and that Comey was being disloyal for refusing to reveal publicly that Trump was not under personal investigation.
All of this squares with the theory I have been proposing for weeks: namely, that Trump knows he is innocent of collusion with Russia, was angry and puzzled that Comey wouldn’t say so, and fired him out of pique. That isn’t illegal, and it isn’t obstruction, and it isn’t even pressure. But that’s not how the press will play it.
There were some other worthwhile issues raised by Comey that could protect him from political attacks from the right. First, Comey said that he only began keeping contemporaneous practice with Trump, but did not do so with Obama. “I spoke alone with President Obama twice in person (and never on the phone) – once in 2015 to discuss law enforcement policy issues and a second time, briefly, for him to say goodbye in late 2016. In neither of those circumstances did I memorialize the discussions,” Comey stated. The question remains why he did not.