WASHINGTON -- Former FBI Director James Comey said President Donald Trump's administration lied in describing the bureau as having major problems and that he believes Trump fired him because of the agency’s criminal investigation into communications with Russian officials.
Speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee June 8, Comey said it seemed that the investigation, which focused on interactions between Trump associates and Russian officials, “was irritating” for Trump and that was why he decided to fire Comey.
“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,” Comey said.
Trump’s personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz, denied the allegations, and in turn accused Comey of “unauthorized disclosures” of “privileged communications” he had with the president.
Comey’s stunning assertions to the Senate committee were the latest and most momentous chapter to date in the political turmoil that has gripped the White House and riveted much of Washington.
What started out as a series of unusual interactions between Trump associates and Russian officials has now been overtaken by questions of whether Trump sought to obstruct the FBI investigation into his first national security adviser.
That adviser, Michael Flynn, was fired as Trump’s first national security adviser in February after he misled White House officials about his communications with Russian government officials, including Russia's ambassador to the United States.
WATCH: Comey Says Russian U.S. Election Meddling 'A Big Deal'
Obstruction of justice is criminal offense in U.S. law, though there has been some debate among legal experts whether Trump in fact could be indicted.
A series of news reports detailing the interactions between some Trump associates had with dubious Russian and other foreign officials have dovetailed with the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Moscow waged a hacking-and-propaganda campaign to interfere in last year’s election campaign.
At least two congressional committees are looking into both issues, as well as the FBI, which began its criminal probe in July as the presidential race between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton was entering its home stretch
Comey, who was appointed by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, had given only fleeting public indications about the nature and scope of the FBI investigation. In testimony to a House committee in March, Comey revealed the existence of the investigation, but said little otherwise.
A day before the June 8 hearing, the Senate committee released Comey’s written testimony, in which he detailed some of the interactions he had with Trump.
In that testimony, Comey said that Trump demanded loyalty from him during a private dinner at the White House on January 27, one week after Trump was inaugurated as president.
Trump abruptly fired Comey on May 9, claiming the Justice Department had been critical of his job performance.
In his spoken testimony to the Senate June 8, Comey forcefully pushed back against that, making the remarkable assertion that Trump had lied.
"The administration chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple,” Comey said.
Comey said that after he met Trump at the White House at the White House in January, he thought he should be writing memos recounting details of their meetings because "I was honestly concerned that he might lie."
Comey recalled that he thought at the time: "I gotta write it down and I gotta write it down in a very detailed way."
He also said that he leaked contents of a memo about his conversation with Trump to The New York Times, an effort he said was aimed at forcing the appointment of a special counsel.
Kasowitz suggested that Comey could be prosecuted for the release of "privileged information."
"Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he leaked to friends his purported memos of these privileged conversations, one of which he testified was classified," Kasowitz said.
Comey was asked by senators whether Trump's suggestion that Comey should drop the investigation into Flynn constituted obstruction of justice. Comey demurred, saying that was a question for special counsel Robert Mueller, also a former FBI director.
"I don't think it's for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct," he said. "I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning."
Later, he said that he believed he was fired “to change the way the Russia investigation was being conducted."
Despite sharply criticizing Comey, Kasowitz said the fired FBI director’s testimony established that Trump was not being investigated for colluding with Russia or attempting to obstruct an FBI probe.
Trump “never, in form or substance” directed Comey to halt the probe into Flynn, Kasowitz said.
A day after Comey’s firing, on May 10, Trump held an unusual White House meeting with Russia's foreign minister and its ambassador. According to press reports, Trump bragged about firing Comey to the Russians, calling him a "real nut job" and saying that the firing had taken pressure off his administration.
Trump's firing of Comey prompted an outcry among congressional lawmakers. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who heads the Justice Department and thus the FBI, earlier had been forced to recuse himself from any Russian investigations due to his own interactions with Russian officials.
Oversight would have then fell to newly appointed deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, but he co-signed the May 9 letter firing Comey. Outcry over that led to his appointing Mueller as special counsel to oversee the investigation.
Trump has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
In a speech delivered to supporters in Washington, roughly at the same time with the hearing, he vowed to fight on.
"We're under siege...but we will come out bigger and better and stronger than ever," he said. "We will not back down from doing what is right ... We know how to fight and we will never give up."
Earlier, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters on June 8 that Trump was "not a liar.”
“In Washington, we often say the cover up is worse than the crime," Norm Eisen, who served as President Barack Obama's special counsel and special assistant from 2009 to 2011, told RFE/RL in an interview.
"And this obstruction allegation is a cover-up, but today we heard very powerfully from Director Comey that the crime was even worse than the cover-up, because the crime that occurred was Russian interference, and an attack on our democracy; the same kind of attack using cyber tools and propaganda and espionage, the same kind of attacks that people in Europe are all too familiar with Russia, Mr. Putin launching against them," Eisen said.
Speaker Paul Ryan, the highest-ranking elected Republican in the House of Representatives, said it was "obviously" inappropriate for Trump to demand loyalty from Comey.
"This is nowhere near the end of the investigation," the committee's Republican chairman, Richard Burr, told reporters after the hearing concluded.
RFE/RL correspondent Mark Najarian contributed to this report