Former FBI director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee this morning was a blockbuster event, one that was carried live on broadcast networks and cable news and that dominated the day’s news cycle.
The hearing stretched for more than 2½ hours, with the bulk of the questioning centering on Comey’s firing and the discussions he had with President Trump that led to his dismissal, as well as Comey’s knowledge of the investigation into ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.
It’s over now, but if you missed it, here is rundown of the highlights:
1 p.m.: The Big Takeaway
There were a lot of issues swirling around during the nearly 3-hour Senate hearing, but the major question underscoring all of it was this: Why did Trump fire Comey on May 9?
Comey said he is taking Trump at his word, that he was fired in relation to the FBI’s broader Russia investigation. The president made that assertion during an NBC News in an interview several weeks ago.
In characterizing his nine conversations with Trump prior to his firing, Comey repeatedly accused the president of lying. He slammed Trump with allegations of bad behavior and possibly unethical conduct, but he stopped short of suggesting the president broke the law. He said that characterization was now up to special counsel Robert Mueller, who has been brought in to investigate the 2016 Trump campaign’s Russia ties.
At the same time, however, Comey declined to provide evidence that Trump interfered with either the larger Russia investigation, or with the one specific to Trump’s former national security adviser Mike Flynn.
That meant that overall, members of both political parties walked away happy.
Republicans on the panel made sure to press Comey to ensure, under oath, that it was simply Comey’s opinion — not a set of facts — that Trump ordered him to let go of the Flynn investigation. Trump, they made sure to hammer home, never explicitly ordered him to stop the inquiry.
Democrats, meanwhile, had to be nearly giddy at circus-like atmosphere. There is no question that this was a bad day for Trump, given both the optics of today’s event and the preceeding 48 hours of news stories asking all kinds of questions. If Trump told Comey months ago that he was concerned by “the cloud” of the Russia investigation, that cloud became full-scale Nor’easter this morning.
12:30 p.m.: But her e-mails . . .
It has been five months since the 2016 presidential election, but there was still a lot of discussion in today’s hearing about the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of her e-mails while serving as secretary of state.
Senator John McCain in particular kept pressing Comey as to why he concluded the investigation into the Clinton e-mails, but not the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. (Hint: the Clinton investigation started a lot earlier.)
Others wondered why Comey didn’t request a special prosecutor. Comey said that at the time he felt it was unfair politically to Clinton since he believed there wasn’t enough evidence to lead to charges.
But Republicans did get something out of this line of questioning. Comey said he became “concerned” when Obama’s attorney general Loretta Lynch told him to stop calling the Clinton e-mail probe an “investigation” and refer to it instead as “a matter.” He said he later learned that Clinton campaign also refered to the e-mail situation as “a matter” — a coincidence he said he found “concerning.”
Republicans, if they really want to relitigate the 2016 campaign, may be able to contend that there was some type of collusion between the Clinton campaign and Lynch. But we have already gone down that path when Lynch met privately with former president Bill Clinton and then recused herself from the Clinton “matter.”
12 p.m.: Comey engineered a press leak with the hope it would create a special prosecutor
Comey said that after he saw the Trump tweet suggesting there might be a recording of their Oval Office meeting, Comey remembered in the middle of the night that he took notes of the meeting.
The former FBI director then told the committee that he called a friend at Columbia Law School to leak the contents of his notes to a reporter at the New York Times. Comey said his hope was that the move would force the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel. It worked. Days later former FBI director Robert Mueller was hired for that role.
And if those tapes do exist, what does Comey think should be done with them?
“Release the tapes. I’m good with it,” he testified Thursday.
11:45 a.m.: The critical distinction in this hearing
The big-picture question at this point in the hearing is whether Trump acted in a way that obstructed justice by interfering with the FBI investigation into Flynn.
The key moment when this could have happened was an Oval Office meeting with Trump. Comey was there with other members of the US intelligence community for a meeting. As it ended, Trump, according to Comey, told Comey to stay behind.
During their conversation, Trump brought up the Flynn investigation. Press reports last month said that Trump asked Comey to “let it go” but under oath today, Comey said those words were never actually used and instead simply implied. Comey said he believed that is what Trump wanted him to do. But of course he didn’t drop the investigation.
Given that the first article of impeachment written up on Richard Nixon was about obstruction of justice, the intricacies of this point matter.
11:30 a.m.: Meanwhile, on Twitter. . .
No, Trump didn’t livetweet the hearing. But more than an hour into the testimony, two of his sons were. Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) posted repeatedly during the testimony, defending his father and attacking Comey. His brother, Eric (@EricTrump), didn’t directly address Comey’s comments, but instead attacked a recent Forbes article detailing the Trumps’ involvement with a children’s cancer charity.
Comey "I could be wrong"— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) June 8, 2017
Respectfully, I have raised $16.3 Million for dying children with an expense ratio of less than 12.3%. Let's not politicize pediatric cancer https://t.co/pqg9272EZr— Eric Trump (@EricTrump) June 8, 2017
11:15 a.m.: Sharing Russia info with Sessions would have been “problematic”
Comey said that at some point he shared details of his meeting with Trump with top aides at the FBI, as well as with the deputy attorney general. Asked why he didn’t tell Attorney General Jeff Sessions personally, he said he thought Sessions would soon recuse himself from the Russia investigation because his continued involvement would be “problematic.”
11:00 a.m.: “Lordy,” Comey hopes Trump taped their Oval Office meeting
After Trump fired Comey, news reports said that Comey took detailed notes about their meetings. Trump responded on Twitter: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
During his testimony on Wednesday Comey said that in fact he hopes there are tapes.
“I’ve seen the tweets about tapes. Lordy I hope there are tapes,” he said.
10:50 a.m.: Comey thought Trump might lie about their meetings
Comey explained that he never felt the need to write notes after his meetings with presidents George W. Bush or Barack Obama. But after the first time he met with then-President-elect Trump in Trump Tower, Comey got into a FBI car and immediately began typing up notes to document what happened.
The reason he documented all nine meetings with Trump? He was worried that Trump would not be truthful about what happened.
“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting,” Comey told the committee.
By the way, Comey also revealed something that many have wondered for a long time: What did Trump whisper in his ear when they shook hands in the White House in front of the cameras.
Comey said Trump told him “I really look forward to working with you.”
10:30 a.m.: Comey: Shifting explanations of my firing confused and concerned me.
Comey opened with 4 minutes of remarks largely framing a dynamic of the FBI he led against the Trump White House, which he said lied about the agency and “defamed” its members.
After taking the oath to tell the truth, Comey did not read from his written opening testimony, which was released Wednesday afternoon. Instead he began by saying that the president fired him a month ago for no reason at all. At the same time, Comey said he became “confused” and later “concerned” by the shifting explanations as to why he was fired.
It is true that the Trump White House first explained that the firing had nothing to do with an investigation into Trump’s Flynn or the broader investigation into potential collusion between the Russian government and the Trump 2016 campaign.
“The administration then chose to defame me, and more importantly, the FBI . . . those were lies, plain and simple,” Comey testified Thursday morning. “The FBI is honest. The FBI is strong. And the FBI is and always will be independent.”
But remember that after that original White House explanation Trump said in an interview with NBC News that he did have the Russia investigation on his mind when he fired Comey.
“The shifting explanation [for my dismissal] confused me and increasingly concerned me,” Comey told the committee Thursday morning.