Former FBI director James Comey unloaded on President Donald Trump Thursday morning in a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, calling the president a liar and strongly suggesting that he attempted to obstruct justice by asking him to end an investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Comey said that he believes Trump ultimately fired him because he did not like the path that the FBI investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials was taking, and he confirmed that he had begun taking detailed notes immediately after every one-on-one interaction with Trump after his first interaction with him.
“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting,” he explained.
One nugget of Comey’s testimony, though, may come back to haunt him -- his admission to California Senator Dianne Feinstein that he had trouble “reading” the president in his conversations with him.
The exchange came as Feinstein asked Comey to comment on his claim that Trump asked for a pledge of loyalty during a private dinner at the White House in January. According to the former FBI director, Trump told him that many people wanted his job, and told him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” By his own account, Comey was stone-faced, offering his “honesty” before the two men settled on the nebulous concept of “honest loyalty.”
She asked what “impact” did Comey believe that conversation had?
“I don’t know for sure,” he told Feinstein, “Because I don’t know the president well enough to read him well.” He added, “He was asking for something and I was refusing to give it. But again, I don’t know him well enough to know how he reacted to that exactly.”
This may seem trivial, but it’s a safe bet that Trump’s defenders will pick up on it, because much of the most damaging information coming out of Comey’s testimony and his post-meeting memos, if they are released, will rely wholly on his impression -- or “reading” -- of what the president said to him.
Just moments before his admission to Feinstein that he doesn’t read the president very well, he told Idaho Sen. James Risch that one of the most compelling moments in his description of five different one-on-one interactions with Trump -- the president’s request that he drop the investigation into Flynn -- relied on Comey’s own interpretation of Trump’s meaning.
In his prepared testimony, Comey described a private meeting in the Oval Office on February 14, during which the president 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.”
After asking Comey to confirm that the words were Trump’s precise comments, the following exchange took place:
Risch: He did not direct you to “let it go.”
Comey: Not in his words, no.
Risch: He did not order you to let it go?
Comey: Again, those words are not an order.
Risch: He said, “I hope.” Now like me, you probably did hundreds of cases, maybe thousands of cases charging people with criminal offenses ... Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or for that matter any other criminal offense, where they said or thought they “hoped” for an outcome?
Comey: I don’t know well enough to answer, but the reason I keep saying “his words” is, I took it as a direction. I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying “I hope this.” I took it as, “This is what he wants me to do.”
Risch: You may have taken it as a direction, but that’s not what he said.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio later asked Comey to concede a similar point.
“As you perceived it, even though it was a request that he hoped you did away with it, you perceived it as an order, given his position, the setting and some of the circumstances?” Rubio asked.
“Yes,” Comey replied.
Comey later told Maine Sen. Angus King that Trump’s words about the Flynn investigation may not have been a direct order, but that “It rings in my ears, kind of, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’” He was referring to the supposed complaint by King Henry II against Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, which was interpreted by his knights as an order to murder the cleric.
So, the biggest question out of many that the hearing addressed was whether or not Trump obstructed justice with his comments about the Flynn investigation, and on more than one occasion, Comey admitted that it was, in effect, a matter of interpretation. And in the same time, he admitted that he may not be particularly good at reading the president’s intentions.
At multiple points during the hearing on Thursday, Comey also described himself as being “stunned” or surprised by Trump and unsure how to react to him. He told Feinstein that after the president expressed hope that he Flynn investigation would be dropped, he was so surprised as to be at a loss for words. At another, he described being so uncomfortable in a conversation that he took the first opportunity he saw to end it.
Again, these may seem like quibbles, but as Comey himself admitted, there is nobody else to corroborate what went on between the two men when they were alone. (Unless, as Trump once ominously suggested, the conversations in the White House were surreptitiously recorded. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey said at one point.)
And the idea that Comey simply doesn’t “get” the way Trump talks was already a talking point for Trump defenders even before Thursday’s testimony.
In an appearance on MSNBC Wednesday afternoon, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a frequent Trump surrogate, said, “What people don’t understand is that they elected an outsider president. They elected someone who had never been inside government … so, I think over the course of time, we can talk about different examples, what you’re seeing is a president who is now very publicly learning about the way people react to what he considers to be normal New York City.”
None of this is to argue that Comey’s assessment of what Trump meant is actually incorrect. It’s only to point out that there are arguments to be made -- supplied by Comey himself -- that the FBI director may have misunderstood the president when it comes to a moment that is key to any obstruction of justice claim.