By Patricia Zengerle and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former FBI director James Comey on Thursday accused President Donald Trump of firing him to try to undermine the bureau’s investigation into possible collusion between his 2016 presidential campaign team and Russia.
In the most eagerly anticipated U.S. congressional hearing in years, Comey told lawmakers the Trump administration had lied and defamed him and the FBI 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 to drop an FBI probe into the Republican president’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn as part of the broader Russia investigation.
Comey nevertheless did not make any major new revelations about alleged 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.
Dressed in a dark suit and giving short, deliberative answers, Comey painted a picture of an overbearing president who he did not trust and who pressured him to stop the FBI investigating Flynn.
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 probe.
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.”
But Comey would not say whether he thought the president sought to obstruct justice but did say that Flynn was “in legal jeopardy” with the FBI investigation.
“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 told the committee.
Trump critics say that any efforts by the president to hinder an FBI probe could amount to obstruction of justice. Such an offense potentially could lead to Trump being impeached by Congress, although the Republicans who control the Senate and House of Representatives have shown little appetite for such a move.
In a speech to supporters across town, Trump vowed to fight on. “We’re under siege … but we will come out bigger and better and stronger than ever,” he said.
“We know how to fight and we will never give up,” the president added.
Trump’s personal lawyer, Mark Kasowitz, said Comey’s testimony proved the president was not under any investigation and there is no evidence a single vote was changed as a result of Russian interference in last year’s election.
Kasowitz denied Trump ever told Comey he needed and expected his loyalty, as Comey said, and also slammed the former FBI chief for saying he leaked details of a conversation with the president. Kasowitz added that “we will leave it the appropriate authorities” to determine whether Comey’s leak “should be investigated along with all those others being investigated.”
Comey’s accusations could further mire Trump’s administration in legal difficulties, as special counsel Robert Mueller, appointed by the Justice Department after Comey was fired, and several congressional committees investigate alleged Russian efforts to influence the election.
Russia has denied such interference. The White House has denied any collusion.
Comey said Trump’s administration had defamed him in comments made after his firing by saying that the FBI was in disarray and that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader. “Those were lies, plain and simple,” Comey said.
Trump’s fellow Republicans on the committee questioned Comey intently but did not attack his integrity or try to treat him roughly, as a witness making accusations against a sitting Republican president might expect.
U.S. stocks were higher in afternoon trading as Comey’s testimony was seen by investors as having no smoking gun that could affect Trump’s presidency.
“To the extent it doesn’t seem to be a ‘gotcha’ moment here, the market’s plodding along,” said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities in New York.
Comey said Trump did not attempt to get him to drop the overall Russia investigation, just the part of if that related to Flynn, who the president fired in February for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the extent of his conversations last year with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio asked Comey whether he perceived the president’s request to let the Flynn matter go as an order given Trump’s position as president, the setting and the circumstances surrounding the conversation.
“Yes,” Comey replied.
Comey said he felt he needed to get his account of his conversations with Trump in the public sphere in the hope it might prompt the appointment of a special counsel, which later occurred. Comey said he showed copies of his memo memorializing his talks with Trump to people outside the Justice Department and “asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter.”
Comey said he shared the memo with “a professor at Columbia Law School, a reference to Daniel Richman, who confirmed to Reuters he was the one Comey referred to in his testimony.
Comey said he did not know if there are tapes of his conversations with Trump but said if so they should be made public.
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey said.
Comey testified he kept notes after meeting with Trump because “I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document.”
Trump has previously called Comey a “showboat” and a “grandstander” and said he was thinking of “this Russia thing” in dismissing him.
(Additional reporting by Jan Wolfe in New York, Doina Chiacu, Eric Walsh, Roberta Rampton, Mark Hosenball and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Will Dunham)