Former FBI director James Comey did not drop any major bombshells in his much-anticipated testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday. But the confrontation did reveal new information about the FBI investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, and it showcased the Republicans’ and Democrats’ approach to the controversy. Here are some takeaways from the hearing:
A punt on obstruction of justice
It was one of the most important questions coming into the hearing: Would Comey say under oath that he believed President Donald Trump attempted to obstruct justice by asking him to drop the FBI’s investigation into Michael Flynn? Comey quickly laid it to rest. Near the start of the hearing, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., asked him point-blank if Trump’s request represented obstruction of justice, one of the impeachment charges leveled against President Richard Nixon.
“I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation with the president was an effort to obstruct,” Comey answered. He said the request was worrisome – a point he made in his written testimony – but declined to go further. “That’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel [Robert Mueller] will work towards,” Comey said.
Comey’s answer was a reminder that the biggest decisions surrounding the Russia investigations will be made by Mueller and others. From here on out, Comey will continue to play an important role. But the final outcome isn’t up to him.
Politics ruled the day
In his opening statement, Burr implored his colleagues to “keep these questions above partisanship and politics.” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the panel’s top Democrat, echoed the sentiment moments later. “This investigation is not about re-litigating the election,” Warner said. “It’s not about Democrats versus Republicans.”
“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting.”
Their colleagues seemed to have a different idea. The Democrats and Republicans on the committee took two markedly different approaches in their questioning of the former FBI chief. Democrats focused on the behavior of Trump, his campaign associates and top administration officials. Republicans focused on Comey’s behavior, casting doubts on his actions and statements going all the way back to the 2016 campaign and his handling of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Republicans’ questions to Comey ranged widely from the Clinton email case to his note-taking abilities and failure to confront Trump over the president’s request to drop the Michael Flynn probe. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., noted that Comey seemed to have “serious concerns” about the president’s intervention in the FBI investigation. Yet “you had taken no action” to make that public, Blunt told Comey. He added, “Do you have a sense of that looking back, that that was a mistake?” “No,” Comey said.
But the exchange and others like it reinforced the view, held by many on the right, that Comey can’t be trusted. To that end, a conservative group launched campaign-style television ads Thursday morning attacking Comey ahead of the hearing. The attacks likely won’t impact Comey’s reputation in Washington, where he is widely seen as a respected public servant. But the ads and Republican line of questioning at the hearing won’t help Comey’s reputation outside the Beltway— and that could have a big impact on his credibility as the investigations continue.
Was Trump’s request on Flynn a direct order?
According to Comey’s memo and written testimony, Trump told Comey that it was his “hope” Comey would drop the Flynn investigation. On Thursday, Republicans honed in on the word, and argued that it did not amount to a direct order on Trump’s part.
But the exchange and others like it reinforced the view, held by many on the right, that Comey can’t be trusted.
At one point, Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, asked Comey: “Did [Trump] order you” to drop the investigation into Flynn? “No,” Comey acknowledged, the words were “not an order.” But he said that, in the private, Oval Office conversation with the president of the United States, “I took it as a direction.”
Right now, the debate over obstruction of justice hinges on Trump’s conversations with Comey, so every word matters. And Comey’s testimony left plenty of room for interpretation, depending on your political persuasion. While the Democrats on the committee made clear they were concerned by Trump’s request, the Republicans suggested they were open to reaching a different conclusion.
Sen. Roy Lankford, R-Okla., asked Comey if he was aware of Trump making the Flynn request to any other intelligence official. When Comey said he didn’t think so, Lankford answered, “This seems like a pretty light touch to drop it.” Special Counsel Mueller will make the ultimate determination. But it was a signal from Republicans – at least for now – that they’re willing to live with Trump’s behavior.
Comey called Trump a liar
Public officials rarely call a president a liar outright— but Comey made it clear that he thinks Trump has a habit of not telling the truth. When asked by Warner why he took notes on his conversations with Trump, Comey answered:
“The nature of the person. I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting.” Comey added that because of the gravity of the topics being discussed with Trump, he “knew that there might come a day where I would need a record” of their talks.
Comey went on to say that he did not feel a need to document the three one-on-one conversations he had with Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, a point he also made in his written testimony. “The combination of those factors just wasn’t there with President Bush or President Obama,” he said.
The message was clear: Comey trusted Bush and Obama, and does not trust Trump. That Comey thought Trump had a propensity to lie was clear before the hearing. But Comey’s blunt public confirmation was his strongest personal criticism of Trump at the hearing. Comey also pushed back on Trump’s claims that he had lost the confidence of the agents at the FBI. “Lies, plain and simple,” Comey said.
The remarks likely stung a president who is known to focus on perceived slights and harbor deep personal grudges. If Trump disliked Comey before the hearing, being called a liar probably only made things worse. The question is, will Trump shelve his personal feelings about Comey, or let them influence his behavior? As a candidate and president, Trump has feuded with individual political opponents and reporters, sometimes using ugly language that sparked distracting headlines.
Comey hoped memo leak would lead to special counsel
Comey acknowledged that he shared his memo of the Feb. 14 meeting with Trump — in which the president asked him to drop the Flynn investigation — to a friend who works as a professor at Columbia Law School. “I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel,” Comey said.
It was a frank admission on Comey’s part that, after he was fired, he hoped the scope of the Russia investigation would be expanded— and that he took concrete action to further that goal. The comment showed a willingness on Comey’s part to be honest about his motivations. But it also opened him up to further criticism from the right that the Russia probes are a political witch hunt aimed at hurting Trump.
The special counsel has Comey’s memos. Senate investigators do not
Comey revealed for the first time that he handed all of his memos over to Mueller, the special counsel. That puts Mueller one step ahead of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has still not received the documents from Comey. Comey said he was open to releasing his memos more widely. He also said he hoped that, if Trump taped their conversations, the president would release the recordings.
“I’ve seen the tweet about tapes,” Comey said. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”