Former FBI Director James Comey’s characteristically measured testimony Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee communicated one fact clearly: he doesn’t think much of the current President of the United States.
Over and over during his three-hour-long appearance, Comey painted Donald Trump as a free-wheeling, habitually untruthful commander-in-chief with little respect for the independence of the FBI.
Trump himself has taken gleeful potshots at Comey, tweeting in the days after he removed Comey as FBI director that he had “lost the confidence” of both Republicans and Democrats and denigrated the “spirit and prestige of the FBI.” He also reportedly told senior Russian officials that Comey was “crazy, a real nut job,” who was insistent on pursuing an investigation into their interference in the 2016 election.
Now a private citizen, and knowing the eyes of Americans all over the country were on his testimony, Comey made his own personal views on Trump explicit.
Things got personal from the outset, with Comey charging in his brief opening remarks that the Trump administration tried to “defame” him and the FBI after his dismissal.
“Although the law requires no reason at all to fire an FBI director, the administration then chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI, by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the work force had lost confidence in its leader,” Comey said. “Those were lies plain and simple. And I am so sorry that the FBI work force had to hear them and I am so sorry that the American people were told them.”
In Comey’s telling, the dynamic between the former FBI director and the President got off to a rocky start even before Trump took office for reasons outside the control of either of them.
During their first meeting before inauguration, Comey was tasked with briefing the President-elect on a dossier containing uncorroborated and at times salacious allegations about interactions between Trump, his associates and Russian operatives.
“The relationship didn’t get off to a great start given the conversation I had to have on Jan. 6,” he testified. “This was not—this didn’t improve the relationship because it was very, very awkward.”
The relationship failed to improve in subsequent one-in-one conversations, always at Trump’s request, in which the President allegedly made a series of requests that Comey characterized as wildly inappropriate.
As Comey laid out in seven pages of prepared remarks released to the public some 20 hours before his Thursday testimony, Trump requested that the then-FBI director pledge “loyalty” to him, drop the bureau’s investigation into fired national security adviser Michael Flynn, and take steps to dispel the “cloud” that the federal investigation into Russia’s election interference cast over his administration.
Those requests, and Trump’s repeated comments about Comey’s own role, made him deeply “uneasy” and gave him the “sense my job would be contingent upon how he felt I conducted myself and whether I demonstrated loyalty,” he testified.
“The statue of justice has a blindfolds on,” Comey said tersely. “You’re not supposed to be peeking out to see whether your patron is pleased or not with what you’re doing.”
In repeated, half-joking winks, Comey made it explicitly clear that he doubted Trump’s motives and never initiated private communications with him, let alone welcomed being left alone with the President.
Comey noted he tried to get “off the phone” with Trump during an April 11 phone conversation, and incredulously replied, “No!” when Sen. Angus King (I-ME) asked if he’d tried to arrange a private dinner with Trump on Jan. 27, as the President claimed.
The former FBI director divulged that he had to cancel dinner with his wife to eat with Trump instead. Comey drew laughter from the room when he said, “I love spending time with my wife. I wish I would have been there that night.”
Comey repeatedly charged that Trump made false statements about their interactions, stressing that he did not trust the President to discuss their encounters in a truthful manner. Many of those comments came in response to senators’ questions about why Comey felt the need to meticulously document his interactions with Trump, a practice he did not feel the need to do under former Presidents Barack Obama or George W. Bush.
He noted that, aside from the delicacy of discussing of an ongoing federal investigation that touched on the President’s own campaign, he felt compelled to document those interactions in contemporaneous memos because of “the nature of the person.”
“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document,” Comey testified of the Jan. 6 briefing.
Later, in an exchange with Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), he reiterated that a “gut feeling” and concerns about Trump’s personality motivated him to document their encounters.
Comey attributed his thinking to “the circumstances that I was alone, the subject matter, and the nature of the person that I was interacting with and my read of that person.”
The White House summarily dismissed that characterization of the President.
As Comey testified before senators over on Capitol Hill, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered these words of assurance to reporters at an off-camera press briefing: “I can definitively say the President is not a liar.”