Live Report: The Comey Hearing – “Those were lies, plain and simple”

Torchlight’s politics editor Christopher Dahlin is covering today’s momentous hearing featuring the testimony of former FBI Director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee from the Union Pub on Capitol Hill. This post will be updated live. All photographs taken by Christopher Dahlin.

12:52pm: Senators Warner and Burr are speaking.

They will continue to work with Mueller, investigation will keep going. They say that the Russian interference was serious and significant, and will not go away.

12:49pm: Shot update from the Union Pub: we are getting one consolation lack of Trump Tweet shot. Coconut Rum!

12:39pm: And that is it, I believe.

I wanted shots (Trump never tweeted during the hearing), but I think Comey got his hits in. He showed humility, an awareness that he may have made mistakes, but he also showed he knew what was going on. Comey comes out of this looking really good, and Trump looks to be not in a great position. Comey was in complete control here. This is exactly why he was appointed Director.

In my opinion, it absolutely looks like Trump committed obstruction, and Comey knows it. But he is very good at his job. He only gets people to the water’s edge, but makes the plunge obvious. He doesn’t import his own opinion.

Trump’s attorney will have a statement soon.

12:30pm: Senator McCain (R-AZ) is now questioning.

And we immediately start with emails.

Comey: the Clinton investigation was a completed investigation, so denying legal wrongdoing was appropriate. Flynn is ongoing, so saying Trump was not under investigation was appropriate.

Good gods, I think McCain is trying to blame Russia on Clinton. Or he’s confused.

McCain asks Comey what “that thing” was that Trump said he and Comey had, whether Comey asked about it. Comey did not ask, he just let it go. Comey thinks that Trump was going to mention giving loyalty at dinner, but that Trump then remembered that didn’t happen.

12:23pm: Senator Reed (D-RI) is now questioning.

Not much new here that hasn’t already been gone over.

Regarding Trump’s initial explanation for the firing, Comey “just doesn’t buy it.” Again points to Trump’s words involving pressure.

12:17pm: Senator Cornyn (R-TX) is now questioning.

Comey: “Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me” to fire the Director “but I’m hopelessly biased.” He says the work of the FBI will go on.

Cornyn going back to Clinton emails.

Cornyn is now trying to damage Loretta Lynch, directly comparing the email scandal to the Russia investigation. Comey says he did not call for special counsel with the emails as “there was absolutely no case there.” It would have been “brutally unfair.”

Cornyn continues to compare the email scandal with the Russia investigation.

12:08pm: Senator Harris (D-CA) is now questioning.

Comey says he’s “between opportunities” so happy to be at the hearing.

Harris makes a statement concerning a robber holding a gun to a person’s head and saying “I hope you can see your way to giving me your wallet.”

Harris asking about communications with Russia, Comey cannot answer.

Now asking about Session’s recusal. Comey doesn’t know what Sessions is involved with or doing.

Now Harris is going over Special Counsel Mueller. Comey has full faith in him, and says he should have full independence. He thinks Mueller will get it.

12:01pm: Senator Cotton (R-AR) is now questioning.

Comey had no memos for other senior government officials. He reviewed his calls with Trump to determine which deserved to be in his opening statement; those left out were not consequential.

Cotton is mostly asking questions Comey can’t answer in an open setting.

Cotton is talking about the Ashcroft showdown, where Comey defended a hospitalized Ashcroft from presidential pressure during an incident in the Bush administration. Comey was willing to resign then, but did not have such a letter for Trump.

11:55am: Senator Manchin (D-WV) is now questioning.

Comey says he had no conversation or questions about Russian interference with Trump beyond the official initial briefing. Now going into why the interference is important.

Comey asks Trump to release all the tapes.

Apparently Trump’s attorney has a statement ready for after the hearing.

Comey doesn’t know if he would have been fired if Hillary was elected. But he knew it was a possible consequence of his actions.

Again, Comey says it’s Mueller’s job to determine whether obstruction of justice took place.

11:47am: Senator Lankford (R-OK) is now questioning.

Comey referred to and reviewed statements for his opening statement.

Comey thinks that his friend still has copies of the memos. Lankford wants those copies, as Mueller has Comey’s copies.

Lankford is just reviewing how an order should work. Mentions tweets that the president has made concerning the investigation and direct communication with the Director of the FBI.

Now on the Clinton email investigation.

11:40am: Senator King (I-ME) is now questioning.

Comey says that the Russians will interfere again.

King asks if Comey initiated the dinner with Trump. Comey laughs and says no. In fact, he had to break a date with his wife. King calls that “one of the all-time great excuses,” and does not follow up on which experience Comey would have preferred.

King asking about Flynn and investigations, questions that Comey cannot answer in an open hearing.

Shout out to “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” referencing the murder of Thomas Becket.

11:32am: Senator Blunt (R-MO) is now questioning.

Blunt is basically asking Comey why he didn’t resign. Comey is again prioritizing the investigation.

Blunt is asking why Comey talked to the president alone after Comey told Sessions not to be left alone with him.

Comey says he gave the memoes to a friend because the media was camped out at his driveway, and it would be “like feeding seagulls at the beach.”

11:28am: Senator Heinrich (D-NM) is now questioning.

Comey did not speak with President Trump about Russian tampering.

(In my opinion, Comey is being adorably earnest.)

Heinrich now questioning about the Kushner/Russia backchannel. Comey won’t answer most questions about this in an open hearing, but makes the obvious point that backchannels make intel gathering easier.

11:16am: Senator Collins (R-ME) is now questioning.

Asking about meetings where Comey told Trump he was not under investigation.

1st meeting, Jan 6. Talking about the dossier and its sexual accusations, Comey assured Trump he was not under investigation to prevent a J. Edgar [Hoover] situation where Trump would have had the impression the FBI was threatening him. Then Comey warned Trump against creating a narrative.

Senator Collins asks about whether Comey was playing games about counterintelligence investigations vs. other investigations when telling Trump he wasn’t under investigation. Comey responds that there were no investigations personally into Trump.

Collins is again asking why Comey wrote memos. Comey says he decided to show the memos to a friend after Trump’s “tapes” tweet. Wanted to ensure his account was corroborated. He knew special counsel was possible.

11:09am: Senator Wyden (D-OR) is now questioning.

Wyden is not happy with timing of Comey’s firing, despite reservations about Comey

Comey felt that his job was contingent on the loyalty pledge. Consideration of how his job would affect his boss was to be a significant consideration of Trump’s desired patronage.

The FBI knew that Sessions would have to recuse himself, but Comey can’t answer a question about whether Sessions adhered to the recusal.

Again Comey emphasizes his desire to preserve the FBI’s integrity, especially that of the investigation team.

11:01am: Senator Rubio (R-FL) is now questioning.

Rubio asking why Comey didn’t tell Trump of the impropriety of lifting the Flynn investigation. Comey says he was choosing his words carefully, and somewhat stunned.

Comey refers to a previous “duty to correct” in his opening statement published yesterday–he explains this is in relation to the Hillary emails investigation. (That “duty to correct” his initial information about the closed investigation with an update about emails found during the Anthony Weiner investigation is what prompted Comey’s infamous letter just prior to the 2016 election.)

Now they’re talking about McCabe; Comey is not sure why Trump was talking about the man with him.

Rubio just going over Comey’s communications with Trump and what he asked.

Asked about leaks, Comey says that matters briefed with the Gang of Eight are generally pretty tight.

10:54am: Senator Feinstein (D-CA) is now questioning.

Comey does not know why he was fired. He takes Trump at his word that it was about the Russian investigation, but is not sure.

In response to a question by Senator Feinstein, Comey says, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”

Comey felt that the “cloud” Trump mentioned during the March 30th phone call was referencing the idea that the Russian investigation was taking up all the oxygen. Trump was asking him to deny the investigation publicly, Comey felt.

Their last conversation on April 11, Comey characterizes as “a rather cowardly way to say ‘we aren’t going to do that.'”

In response to Trump’s requests, Comey consulted a leadership team consisting of chief counsels, deputies, etc. They were as shocked as Comey was. Then the problem became, “What do we do?” Comey knew they had to keep the integrity of the investigation team by keeping Trump’s requests away from them, and considering who they had to tell in the Justice Department.

10:48am: Senator Risch (R-ID) is now questioning Comey.

He says he loves Comey’s legal writing, and commends the contemporaneous notes.

Comey says that the president was not personally under investigation while Comey was Director of FBI.

Comey makes clear that you don’t talk to reporters about how they screw up classified stories.

With regards to Trump’s words to Comey during the February 14 meeting, “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,” Comey took them as an instruction. Risch is trying to weasel out of it. Risch says no one is charged with obstruction for “I hope.”

10:34am: Senator Warner (D-IN) begins his questioning.

Why the written record? Comey gives several reasons: meeting alone, the subject matter relating to the president personally, he was worried that Trump would lie about the content of the meeting. Comey says he knew he would need the record to defend the FBI and their integrity.

As Assistant Attorney General for George W. Bush, Comey spoke with the president in private only once. Under President Obama as FBI Director, he spoke with the president twice. Comey did not feel the need to document those conversations with either president.

One member of the FBI leadership team did not want to make the statement that there was no counterintelligence investigation targeting Trump; Comey disagreed. The leader did not agree because the nature of investigation would touch the campaign, and the head of the campaign might be involved.

Regarding Comey’s dinner with Trump on January 27, Comey feels the dinner was an effort to build a relationship of loyalty, although Trump had already asked him to stay three times. Comey thought Trump was trying to get something for “allowing” Comey to stay on as FBI director. Comey never had a question or expectation of loyalty before; the FBI should be independent. The situation made Comey uneasy.

Regarding the Oval Office meeting on February 14, Comey knew when Trump asked everyone to leave “something was about to happen,” and he “would need to remember every word.”

In my opinion, Comey is being very careful in his testimony.

10:25am: Senator Burr (R-NC) begins asking questions.

Comey has no doubt of Russian interference or that they infiltrated and cyber-intruded in DNC, DCCC, and voter rolls. He is confident no votes were actually altered.

Trump did not ask to stop the investigation into Russian interference, Comey reports. He says it’s not for him to say if Trump attempted to obstruct. The interactions were disturbing, Comey says, but it’s not his job to make that determination.

In response to Senator Burr, Comey says he cannot answer questions about the Steele dossier in open session.

The pair are now going over the history of Russian interference and cyber-intrusion.

And now, emails. Comey’s decision to hold the press conference on July 5th to announce the closing of the Clinton emails investigation was influenced by the tarmac meeting of Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch “in a conclusive way”.  Comey says he had to protect the integrity of the investigation.

10:20am: Comey begins his testimony.

Comey acknowledges that Trump has the power to fire him, but is not happy about it.

Trump told Comey that everyone said he was doing a great job. Comey became concerned about the shifting explanation for the firing.

Comey really does not like the insults to the FBI.

“Lies, plain and simple,” Comey says, about the administration’s claims of the FBI being in disarray and suffering from low morale and bad leadership. “The FBI is honest, strong, and independent.”

Comey regretting not being able to say goodbye got ‘awww’s from those of us in the pub.

10:18amNow giving oath to Comey. Comey is too tall for the camera.

Comey is not repeating his opening statement, released to the public yesterday. You can find that here. The hearing is moving directly to questioning by the committee. Each member will have seven minutes.

10:10am: Senator Warner is now speaking, also taking this seriously. He reminds Virginia that we have an election in November. Warner makes clear that despite questioning certain decisions Comey made, he still has faith in in the former FBI director’s integrity, intelligence, etc.

Warner’s opening statement continues with a list of the various Trump firings over Russia connections: Manafort, Flynn. Mentions Trump’s “Please hack Clinton” press conference.

Warner has a little spice about Comey’s firing. The pub responded with an “oooooh” and a laugh.

(For some reason we are watching this on Fox News, btw. Fine so far.)

Warner is blasting through the many multiple reasons to fire Comey, including the meeting with Kislyak and Lavrov where Trump called Comey a nutjob. I think Warner is pissed about that.

“Not a witch hunt, not fake news,” says Senator Warner.

10:05am: A warning for classified questions at closed hearing at 1 pm.

Senator Burr is now commenting on Comey’s opening statement. Burr’s opening statement is mostly a questioning of Comey’s certain decisions. He is still taking this seriously. He wants to know about Comey’s press conference decision regarding the Clinton investigation (the original reason why Comey was ostensibly fired).

10:00am: Comey is there.

And the room goes dead quiet.

9:46am EST: So I tried to get into the Senate hearing room, but was too late. Am now at the Union Pub. Apparently we get a shot for a Trump Tweet!

Everyone is excited to hear what Comey has to say. I heard comparisons to Watergate, Iran-Contra and so on while in line. Everyone in pub has a laptop or cell phone. The pub is not normally open at nine in the morning. Fox has a countdown with seconds on it.

I read Comey’s opening statement. It looks like obstruction to me. But Comey is here as a witness, not a prosecutor. He isn’t going to put an opinion on things. That said, I’m expecting things are going to get heated. I’m watching Trump’s twitter as well.

Many people at Union Pub have bosses who do not know they are here (but they probably do know).


Update: More Memos, More Obstruction

Not even a week later, the story about the Comey memos has taken a more serious turn; it is no longer about a conflict of credibility between former FBI Director James Comey and President Donald Trump. It has been reported that, in addition to the Comey request, Trump also asked the Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and Director of the NSA Admiral Michael Rogers in separate instances to intervene on the White House’s behalf. Trump specifically asked them to deny the existence of any collusion with Russian interests during the 2016 election. According to current and former officials, both Coats and Rogers refused, recognizing the impropriety of the request. The Rogers request and refusals was documented by a senior NSA official in a contemporaneous internal memo. We do not yet know whether Coats or the office of the DNI produced a memo regarding the Coats refusal. Any such memos would be within the scope of Special Counsel Mueller’s inquiry, as well as the various Congressional and FBI investigations, if they were to be requested.

There was also more a more direct request of intervention, posed by senior White House officials to top intelligence officials, described by one Washington Post source as “Can we ask him to shut down the investigation? Are you able to assist in this matter?” Comparisons to the Watergate scandal have thus far been easy to conjure, but that description is almost exactly what led to Nixon’s resignation, when he requested the CIA interfere with and shut down the FBI investigation of him.

Independent verification of Trump’s behavior is extremely serious. It transforms the story from an isolated incident, and turns it into a concerted effort to impede or nullify an investigation by the FBI. Whether he knows about the necessity of the independence of the intelligence services, or did it with utterly no idea of the historical or legal context. Not only does this make it much easier to prove obstruction of justice and abuse of power, but it lays clear the philosophies of this executive branch. This president believes that what he does is correct, solely because he is the one who did it, and that is a very dangerous road for the country to travel down.


Comey Memos and Trump “Tapes”

Recently fired FBI director James Comey has revealed that he took extensive notes about his one-on-one meetings with the president, as they made him uneasy. It turns out those misgivings were well founded. According to a source close to Comey, at least one memo describes how President Trump asked Director Comey outright to drop the Flynn investigation. The White House reply to this report was not as vociferous as is Trump’s usual style, only providing a brief written denial, including a statement that Comey’s account is “not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey.” So the credibility (or more specifically the lack thereof) of the president must now be weighed against the credibility of the former Director of the FBI’s contemporaneous records, which are typically considered to have nearly the weight of a recording.

Comey’s memos indicate a disturbing pattern of the president attempting to personally interfere in the investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian-directed hacking of the 2016 election.  One memo reportedly describes how Donald Trump invited Director Comey to a dinner, where Trump asked whether he was under investigation. Comey was reportedly noncommittal, which the president apparently took as a denial of any investigation. Later, after a meeting with several advisers, Trump held Comey back, and asked “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Again, Comey was noncommittal.

The reason these memos exist is because as a lawyer and veteran law enforcement official, Comey makes a habit of taking notes of conversations. This behavior is consistent with what we know about Comey; however, the FBI Director specifically became more careful after a dinner he had with President Trump where the president asked for a loyalty oath. Comey reiterated his oath to the Constitution and the rule of law, and also an oath of honesty to the president. This apparently did not satisfy President Trump, and whether because of this, Comey’s refusal to curtail the investigation into Michael Flynn, or some combination, Trump ultimately fired the FBI Director on May 9th in a shocking move that triggered the start of a cavalcade of scandals and revelations.

The Senate Intelligence Committee had invited Comey to testify in a closed hearing about his firing and related matters, but Comey refused, insisting instead on an open hearing. Presumably Comey preferred a public forum so that his testimony could not be warped and leaked. After the existence of the memos was revealed, calls to invite Comey to testify in an open hearing increased, to the point where even senior and leadership Republicans demanded it, including Lindsey Graham:

As the result of the pressure and outcry, the Senate Intelligence Committee finally offered (and Comey accepted) an invitation to an open hearing, where the former FBI director  will presumably reveal more about his personal conversations with President Trump. It will be scheduled after the Memorial Day recess. Torchlight will once again cover this event live from SH-216, the Senate Hearing Room.

As opposed to Comey’s meticulous and considerate note taking, Trump also claimed he had records of the conversation in a particularly Trumpian fashion: a blustering, threatening tweet completely ignorant of context, history, or the law.

It is legal to tape conversations in the White House, assuming one of the parties consents to the recording. Several previous presidents have famously done so, including Kennedy, Johnson, and (of course) Nixon. However, if such records exist, it is illegal to delete any of them, or any part of them, thanks to record keeping laws put in place after Watergate. In fact, one of Nixon’s last and largest scandals had to do with a White House tape, and specifically an 18-and-a-half-minute gap in which the Watergate break in was presumably discussed. This gap is what led to the Presidential Records Act of 1978. It was also the last straw that would have led to Nixon’s impeachment, if he had not instead chosen to resign. Trump has already found himself in controversial waters because of his behavior with regards to recordkeeping. His tweets are technically part of the body of work that is described under the Presidential Records Act, and erasing them, even to correct spelling, is illegal. He has been warned about this in the past, and if the tape exists and he erases it, he will continue to relive the scandals of Nixon on an accelerated timescale.

One final revelation from the Comey memos so far does not seem to be the focus of most reporting, but is no less chilling than the more discussed aspects. During one meeting, Trump apparently advised Comey that he should start jailing journalists who write stories that publish classified information. In light of Trump’s own apparent leaking of classified intelligence to Russian leaders in an Oval Office meeting, this recommendation is as hypocritical as it is alarming. If this material is typical of the Comey memos, the former Director’s testimony before Congress could reveal a multitude of embarrassing, worrisome, or potentially impeachable behavior on the part of the president.