ANALYSIS: ‘Very big deal’: Comey goes nuclear in showdown with Trump
By RICK KLEIN
He accused the president and his top aides of lying. He suggested that the president wanted special treatment in exchange for loyalty. He said he thinks he lost his job because of how he handled the Russia investigation.
James Comey served notice that, if President Trump operates like a bully, there are powerful people who know how to punch back. Comey’s powerful, riveting testimony – delivered under oath before the Senate Intelligence Committee – overflowed with headlines and revelations that will resonate for months or longer.
Among the big takeaways: In Comey, President Trump has made an enemy who knows the levers of Washington power, and has already put in motion forces that are beyond the president’s ability to control.
The hearing established that – in a point celebrated by the president’s allies – Trump was not a target of an FBI investigation when Comey led the bureau. But Comey’s words and actions since being fired make it more likely that he is one now.
Asked if Trump’s actions in total amount to obstruction of justice, Comey’s answer was understated but telling: “I don’t know. That’s Bob Mueller’s job to sort that out.”
That was no mere question-dodging. In a stunning admission to a feat of political hardball, Comey revealed that he played a role in the fact that Robert Mueller now has that job as special counsel.
Comey said that, after Comey was fired and Trump Tweeted that there may be “tapes” of their private conversations, he engineered the partial release of the contents of a memo detailing a conversation with Trump about Michael Flynn. He admitted that he asked a friend to contact a reporter with that information.
“I asked him to because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel,” Comey acknowledged.
Comey depicted a broad pattern of behavior by the president that is unusual at best and illegal at worst. He described Trump’s efforts to gain a loyalty pledge from the FBI director, as well as his efforts to repeatedly express his views that the Flynn investigation should end directly with Comey.
That all happened, of course, before Comey lost his job. As to his firing – which is of great potential interest to Mueller – Comey’s conclusion was that he was dismissed because “something about the way I was conducting the Russia investigation.”
“The endeavor was to change the way the Russia investigation was being conducted,” Comey said. “That is a very big deal.”
Among other big deals Thursday, Comey directly accused the president and his aides of outright lies in the wake of his firing.
“The administration then chose to defame me, and more importantly the FBI,” Comey said. “Those were lies, plain and simple.”
Comey went further even in questioning the president’s veracity, saying he wrote detailed memos about his conversations with Trump – something he did not do with previous presidents – because he worried about whether he would be honest.
“I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting, so I thought it really important to document,” Comey said.
As for possible tapes, Comey made clear he wants any recording to be released: “I’ve seen the Tweet about tapes. Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
Republicans sought to discredit Comey’s actions and motivations, at least around the edges. They pointed out repeatedly that if Comey found the president’s actions to be inappropriate, he didn’t say so in real time to the president or the attorney general.
While the president himself didn’t Tweet in real-time, his son, Donald Trump Jr., argued that Comey would have known if Trump was strong-arming him.
“Knowing my father for 39 years when he ‘orders or tells’ you to do something there is no ambiguity, you will know exactly what he means,” Trump Jr. Tweeted.
It will now be on the White House to offer clarification. The president’s actions so far have only fanned political flames – with guarantees of much more.
Asked about his own credibility, Comey suggested he likes his chances in a showdown with Trump.
“Look at the whole body of my testimony,” he said. “As I used to say to juries, you can’t cherry-pick it.”