Former FBI director James Comey accused President Donald Trump on Thursday of firing him to undermine FBI’s investigation into possible collusion by his campaign team with Russia’s alleged efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.
In the most eagerly anticipated U.S. congressional hearing in years, Comey told lawmakers the Trump administration had lied and defamed him and the Federal Bureau of Investigation after the president dismissed him on May 9.
During more than two hours of testimony, Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee he believed Trump had directed him in February to drop an FBI probe into the Republican president’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn as part of the broader Russia investigation.
Sitting alone at a small table facing a bank of senators who fired question after question, Comey gave short, deliberative answers. He painted a picture of an overbearing president who he did not trust and who pressured him to stop the FBI Flynn probe.
Comey, however, did not make any major new revelations about any links between Trump or his associates and Russia, an issue that has dogged the president’s first months in office and distracted from his policy goals such as overhauling the U.S. healthcare system and making tax cuts.
Nevertheless, the Russia matter likely will continue to overshadow Trump’s presidency, especially as the FBI probe has already ensnared not only Flynn but also Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has had to recuse himself from the investigation.
After Trump fired Comey, the administration gave differing reasons for his dismissal. Trump later contradicted his own staff and acknowledged on May 11 he fired Comey because of the Russia matter.
Asked why he thought Trump fired him, Comey said he did not know for sure. But he added: “Again, I take the president’s words. I know I was fired because of something about the way I was conducting the Russia investigation was in some way putting pressure on him, in some way irritating him, and he decided to fire me because of that.”
Comey would not say whether he thought the president sought to obstruct justice, but added it would be up to special counsel Robert Mueller, who is now investigating the Russia allegations, “to sort that out.”
“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,” Comey testified.
Trump critics say any efforts by the president to hinder an FBI probe could amount to obstruction of justice. Such an offence potentially could lead to Trump being impeached by Congress, although his fellow Republicans who control the Senate and House of Representatives have shown little appetite for such a move.