Former FBI Director James Comey in his June 8 testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee said he was not directly asked by President Donald Trump and his administration to stop the FBI's Russia probe “into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. elections.” Some right-wing media figures are falsely claiming that Comey suggested that Trump and his administration did not try to obstruct the probe in any matter.
However, in his written testimony, Comey stated that he “understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December,” which was a matter attached to the overall Russia investigation. The former FBI director also warned in the hearing, “I don't think it's for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct.”
Comey also noted that while he told Trump he was not personally under investigation at that specific time, some in the FBI leadership noted that Trump's “behavior, his conduct” could “fall within the scope of” the probe. From the June 8 edition of CNN's Comey Senate Hearing:
SEN. RICHARD BURR (R-NC): Director Comey, did the president at any time ask you to stop the FBI investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. elections?
JAMES COMEY: Not to my understanding, no.
BURR: Did any individual working for this administration, including the Justice Department, ask you to stop the Russia investigation?
BURR: Director, when the president requested that you -- and I quote -- “let [former national security adviser Michael] Flynn go,” General Flynn had an unreported contact with the Russian, which is an offense, and if press accounts are right, there might have been discrepancies between facts and his FBI testimony. In your estimation, was General Flynn at that time in serious legal jeopardy and, in addition to that, do you sense that the president was trying to obstruct justice or just seek for a way for Mike Flynn to save face given he had already been fired?
COMEY: General Flynn at that point in time was in legal jeopardy. There was an open FBI criminal investigation of his statements in connection with the Russian contacts and the contacts themselves. And so that was my assessment at the time. And I don't think it's for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct. I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning, but that's a conclusion I'm sure the special counsel [Robert Mueller] will work towards to try and understand what the intention was there and whether that's an offense.
SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA): And my understanding is prior to your meeting on January 6th, you discussed with your leadership team whether or not you should be prepared to assure then- President-elect Trump that the FBI was not investigating him personally. My understanding was your leadership team agreed with that. Was that a unanimous decision? Was there any debate about that?
COMEY: Was it unanimous? One of the members of leadership team had a view that although it was technically true we did not have a counterintelligence file case opened on then-President-elect Trump, his concern was because we're looking at the potential -- again, that's the subject of the investigation, coordination between the campaign and Russia, because it was President Trump, President-elect Trump's campaign, this person's view was inevitably his behavior, his conduct will fall within the scope of that work and so he was reluctant to make the statement that I made. I disagreed, I thought it was fair to say what was literally true. There is not a counterintelligence investigation of Mr. Trump, and I decided in the moment to say it, given the nature of our conversation.
UPDATE: In contrast to the response from conservative media figures, CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said that “in the letter Trump wrote firing Comey, he said three times, 'You told me that I was not under investigation,' and that was in May. Well here we know in June, Donald Trump is under criminal investigation, and that's a big deal, and that's important.” From the June 8 edition of CNN's coverage of Comey's Senate hearing:
JEFFREY TOOBIN: And I think the February 14th meeting remains the focus and the crucial issue in this whole investigation because that is the most incriminating act that the president took in terms of a possible obstruction of justice case, telling Jim Comey -- and Comey clearly felt he was ordered to stop this investigation.
ANDERSON COOPER (HOST): Even though the president said, “I hope.”
TOOBIN: “I hope,” yes. It was a very interesting exchange with, I'm trying to remember, it was the senator from Maine, Angus King, the famous line about Thomas Becket, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” You don't tell someone, but you know you send the message. It is also the point where there is the clearest conflict between Comey and Trump. Trump says --
COOPER: Because the president has denied --
TOOBIN: -- has said, “I didn't make any sort of order.” There was that question at the press conference that we played. So I think that remains the most important point of conflict. And the other point -- I think Dana alluded to this, but I think it's very important, is that in the letter Trump wrote firing Comey, he said three times, “You told me that I was not under investigation,” and that was in May. Well here we know in June, Donald Trump is under criminal investigation, and that's a big deal, and that's important.