WASHINGTON -- Former FBI Director James Comey has begun to testify in a public hearing before U.S. lawmakers who are investigating allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and any signs of collusion by allies of President Donald Trump.
Comey's June 8 appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee comes a day after he said in written testimony that Trump, who fired him on May 9, had pressured him to drop the FBI investigation of Trump’s first national security adviser and his interactions with Russian officials. Comey began his testimony by reading the written testimony.
In the written testimony, Comey also said that Trump demanded loyalty from him during a private dinner at the White House on January 27, a week after the Republican's inauguration following his victory in an election colored by what U.S. intelligence officials say was a concerted campaign of interference ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin in hopes of helping him defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Comey's written remarks, based on what he said were detailed notes he took after encounters with Trump, corroborate in part news reports of recent weeks that suggest Trump sought to influence the FBI’s investigation of national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Flynn was fired less than a month into the job, on February 13, after he misled Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergei Kislyak.
In comments on June 7, Trump's lawyer focused on Comey's written statement that he told Trump he was not personally under investigation by the FBI."The President feels completely and totally vindicated," attorney Marc Kasowitz said.
But the highest ranking U.S. lawmaker, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan, said it was "obviously" inappropriate for Trump to demand loyalty from the nation's top law-enforcement officer.
Some legal experts who spoke to the Reuters news agency said that Comey's testimony that Trump expected loyalty and hoped Comey would drop the investigation into Flynn could bolster obstruction of justice allegations that might be used as a basis for impeachment proceedings against Trump. But some said that it would be difficult to show that Trump intended to impede the investigation into Flynn.
In his written testimony, Comey said he and Trump had a private dinner together on January 27 and that during the meal Trump asked him if he wanted to remain on as FBI director. Comey was named to the post by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
Comey said he replied that he wanted to serve out his 10-year term and "was not on anybody's side politically."
Comey said Trump told him at the dinner in January that "I need loyalty. I expect loyalty," and Comey replied that he could offer his honesty.
Trump then said he wanted "honest loyalty," and Comey said he told him: "You will get that from me."
During a February 14 White House meeting, Trump pressed Comey on the bureau’s probe of Flynn.
"I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy," Comey quoted Trump as telling him.
"I had understood the president to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with his false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December," Comey said in his written remarks.
Trump fired Comey on May 9, a move that roiled Washington and cast a further shadow over Trump’s presidency, which had been dogged by suspicions about the interactions Trump associates had with Russian and other foreign officials.
In addition to the FBI probe, the Senate Intelligence Committee and at least one House committee are looking both at the nature of those interactions, as well as the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions that Russia interfered in the 2016 election campaign and sought to tilt it in favor of Trump.
In the written remarks, Comey said that Trump also pressured him to publicly announce that he was not personally under federal investigation. In a March 30 phone call, Trump asked Comey what could be done to "lift the cloud" over him, according to the testimony.
"I responded that we were investigating the [Russia] matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our having done the work well," Comey wrote. "He agreed, but then reemphasized the problems this was causing him."
With reporting by AP and Reuters