Damaging Comey revelations exert pressure on Trump presidency
Analysis: Republican-controlled Congress reserves the power to impeach president
Former FBI director James Comey testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photograph: Reuters
It was the most anticipated appearance on Capitol Hill for a generation and as the cameras started rolling in Room 216 of the Hart senate office building in Washington James Comey did not disappoint.
The former FBI director may not have gone as far as some had hoped. He did not accuse US president Donald Trump of obstruction of justice, instead saying this was a question for special counsel Robert Mueller. But he delivered an explosive testimony that raises serious questions about Trump’s future as president.
In extraordinary opening comments he said he had always accepted that he could be fired by any sitting president, but that the “lies” Trump told about him and the “shifting explanations” following his dismissal on May 9th prompted him to act.
“The administration then chose to defame me; and more importantly the FBI, to say that the organisation was in disarray,” he said. “Those were lies, plain and simple.”
Under detailed questioning he confirmed the core issue that may be Trump’s undoing – that the president asked him to back off the investigation into Mike Flynn, his former national security adviser. After asking officials including attorney general Jeff Sessions and adviser Jared Kushner to leave the Oval Office on February 14th, he said that Trump turned to him and said: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy.”
Comey went on to comment publicly for the first time on his sacking by Trump. “It’s my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” he told the 15-strong committee. “I was fired in some way to change . . . the way the Russia investigation was being conducted.”
His accusation that the US president tried to muzzle him was one of the main revelations of the hearing. But Comey did not emerge unscathed.
He admitted leaking information to the media following his sacking, telling the committee that he had asked “a friend of mine to share” a memo he had written about his conversation with Trump with a reporter. But he argued that he thought doing so would prompt the appointment of a special counsel.
He also failed to give a convincing reason why he did not stand up to the president during the Oval Office meeting on February 14th, instead telling Trump that he agreed that Mike Flynn was a “good guy”.
“Maybe if I were stronger, I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in,” he said, adding that he was trying to memorise the president’s words for the now famous memo he would write on leaving the room.
He also revealed that he did raise concerns about Trump’s behaviour with attorney general Jeff Sessions and his deputy Rod Rosenstein, a claim that raises questions about both men.
But despite some issues involving Comey’s actions which were seized on by Republicans, the overwhelming impression from the Comey testimony is its revelations about the president’s conduct.
Trump’s conduct and relationship with the FBI chief has been revealed to have been unprecedented and inappropriate. Comey confirmed he had held nine conversations with Trump in four months – compared to just two with former president Barack Obama over three years. He also said he had never felt the need to make a written record of conversations with previous presidents.
Focus will now turn to special counsel Robert Mueller who was appointed last month by deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein to lead the investigation into Russian interference in last year’s presidential election.
Significantly, Comey revealed he has passed his memos to Mueller.
While Mueller is unlikely to have the power to indict the president, Congress has the power to impeach him. With Republicans controlling Congress, ultimately it will be up to the Republicans there to decide to launch impeachment proceedings.
Speaking after the public session, Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, said he believed he had heard nothing to suggest that Trump had obstructed justice. Whether the majority of his party subscribes to this view will be of crucial significance in the days and weeks ahead.