PBS NewsHour will have live coverage of Thursday’s Senate hearings with former FBI Director James Comey, beginning at 10:00 a.m. EDT on PBS and online.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Our lead story tonight: James Comey tells his story.
In a prepared statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee, released one day ahead of his hearing tomorrow, the former FBI director details his personal conversations with the president, nine in total, compared with just two during three years with President Obama.
Comey describes how Mr. Trump asked repeatedly for a pledge of personal loyalty, asked that he drop the investigation into General Michael Flynn, and complained that allegations surrounding Russia were a cloud over his presidency.
Comey also confirms that he told President Trump that he wasn’t under investigation himself.
Moments ago, Mr. Trump’s attorney responded in a written statement, quoting, “The president is pleased,” it says, “that Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the president wasn’t under investigation in any Russia probe.”
And continuing, he wrote, “The president feels completely and totally vindicated.”
Now, there is a lot to unpack here.
We’re going to walk through much of it now with reporter Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times and with John Carlin. He served as assistant attorney general for national security from 2014 until October of last year. He’s now an attorney in private practice.
And let’s start with their first meeting on January 6 at Trump Tower in New York.
And, Matt, and — we’re going — I’m going to ask both of you right now about this.
To set a little background, it was New York City. James Comey was meeting the president for the first time. He showed up at Trump Tower to meet the president’s national security team, and then, privately, he and the president-elect then had a one-on-one session where Comey shared with Mr. Trump information — he called it sensitive information of a salacious nature that had been gathered as part of the Russia investigation.
So, with that background, here is what James Comey goes on to say.
They had a meeting. Here are some specifics now, beginning with a dinner at the White House three weeks later now. Now, this is January 27, after Mr. Trump is president.
On that day, the president invited Comey over. They dined alone in the Green Room. And here’s how Comey describes its.
He says: “My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch. I replied that I loved my work and intended to stay and serve out my 10-year term as director.
“And then, because the set-up made me uneasy, I added that I was not ‘reliable’ in the way politicians use that word, but he could always count on me to tell him the truth. A few moments later, the president said, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.’ I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.”
Matt Apuzzo, how does this square with the reporting you have done?
MATT APUZZO, The New York Times: Well, a lot of the — a lot of the details here, my colleagues and I have been reporting out here over the last several weeks.
But it’s hard to overstate just the extraordinary nature of the portrait we’re seeing here. We’re really getting — we’re really getting the backstory to the Jim Comey firing.
We’re seeing a president who was preoccupied with, as you said, getting the cloud lifted, the cloud of this Russia investigation that was — become a real liability for the Trump administration from day one.
And the idea that at this private dinner that the president starts their relationship by asking for this loyalty pledge, you can — you just read these memos, you can see Comey, just his anxiety here in the words. It just the uncomfortable — you know, the discomfort he has is palpable.
And you can see Trump getting more and more frustrated that, you know, why is this guy not doing what I’m asking?
JUDY WOODRUFF: John Carlin, from your perspective, what is the significance of this exchange of the president asking for loyalty?
JOHN CARLIN, Former Assistant Attorney General for National Security: Well, the FBI has a unique institutional role, as does the Department of Justice. And so, because both the FBI and prosecutors in the Department of Justice may be called upon to investigate potential criminal activity by members of the president’s party, by actual members of the administration, and in some circumstances investigate conduct of a president him or herself, there’s been a history where the department has attempted to shield itself from political interference.
And there have been times in that history where maintaining that independence has been particularly fraught.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.
JOHN CARLIN: In my tenure as chief of staff at the FBI, and in my time at the department, I can’t recall something quite like this.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and I just want to pick up on that, later on in that January 27 dinner, alone with the president in the White House in the green room, Mr. Comey writes.
He says: “He then said, ‘I need loyalty.’ I replied, ‘You will always get honesty from me.’ He paused and then said, ‘That’s what I want, honest loyalty.’ I paused, and then said, ‘You will get that from me.'”
Is that something, John Carlin, that was appropriate?
JOHN CARLIN: Well, you can see how the president’s demanding loyalty, that might be appropriate in some other context of a political campaign, or even other parts of the administration.
But Director Comey is very focused, it look likes in that exchange, and understands the unique independence of the role of the FBI director. And the reason why the statute was changed so that the FBI director’s term of years is 10 years designed to cut across administrations to ensure that the president who appointed the director, that the director would outlast the tenure of that president.
And so Director Comey, I think, is trying to explain in this awkward context why he will be honest, not disloyal in some sense, but loyal ultimately to the Constitution and the country.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, now I want to turn both of you to this — I think it was their next meeting, February the 14th, in a meeting in the Oval Office.
Now, this time it was with the president, the vice president, the attorney general, several other senior administration officials.
At the end of that meeting, the president asked everyone to leave, except for Comey.
And according to Mr. Comey’s statement, Mr. Trump turned back to the subject of General Michael Flynn, who had been fired just the day before, and he said — quote — “‘I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.'”
And Comey writes: “I replied only that ‘he is a good guy.’ I did not say I would ‘let this go.'”
Matt Apuzzo, how does that square with what you have reported?
MATT APUZZO: My colleague Michael Schmidt broke that exchange a few weeks ago.
But it’s no less — it’s no less remarkable seeing it in that full context, seeing the president ask everybody to leave the Oval Office and speak alone with the head of the FBI and say, you know, let Flynn go.
Just the very nature of we — people — we don’t have to be in Washington to understand why that makes us feel uncomfortable. I mean, anybody who has ever fought a ticket in court, you know, knows that they don’t — they don’t want to feel like the criminal justice system is rigged for people who are friendly with the politicians.
And so if you’re at the FBI, yes, you are part of the administration. You’re part of the Department of Justice. But they just don’t see themselves as working for the president when it comes to criminal justice stuff, and, as John said, certainly not when the investigation touches on the president’s own associates.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, continuing that now, this is afterward, the same day, February 14.
Comey writes he spoke with the attorney general in person. He said: “I took the opportunity to implore the attorney general to prevent any future direct communication between me and the president — between the president and me. I told the A.G. what had just happened — him being asked to leave” — because the attorney general was one of those who had been asked the leave the Oval Office — “while the FBI director, who reports to the A.G., remained behind.”
He said: “That was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply.”
John Carlin, how do we read this?
JOHN CARLIN: I will tell you, there have been instances before, let’s say, in a terrorism incident or a major shooting, in my experience, where the White House would sometimes reach out directly to the FBI.
And it raised concerns, even when that was the context, and there were usual media calls over to the attorney general to ensure that the department was aware of the contact directly with the White House or with immediate aides to the president.
But to have the president of the United States order people out of the room in order — you know, if true, according to this account — in order to implore the director of the FBI to drop an investigation of a friend or associate, that’s the core of why many of our rules and customs were in place, was to prevent exactly that type of conversation or interference from occurring.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So now, here we are, a month-and-a-half later. This is March the 30th. The president phones Jim Comey at the FBI. He repeats the idea of a cloud over his administration because of the Russia investigation.
He said: “He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to ‘lift the cloud.'”
So, Matt Apuzzo, we’re back to that same scenario, back and forth, where the president is asking the FBI director to do something.
MATT APUZZO: Yes.
I mean, look, you can see why Donald Trump might be frustrated, right? Just setting aside the fact that he’s the president, if you have been told you are not under investigation personally, but yet your administration can’t escape the cloud of this investigation, and you kind of just want it to be over, you can see why you would say, hey, what do I have to do to make this go away? If I’m not under investigation, why can’t you just say that?
That’s a very human response. But, as John said, there’s a reason, and there’s a process that you’re supposed to go through when you reach out on stuff like this.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, and just finally, John, we’re not showing anymore graphics from the statement, but it was on March the 30th. There was another phone call where the president again called, complaining about the cloud over his presidency.
And in that conversation, he said: “If there were some satellite associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out there.”
And then he called Mr. Comey again on April the 11th, and talked about loyalty, back and forth. He said, “I have been very loyal to you,” and, in essence, saying, will you be loyal back to me? And he said, “At this point, I didn’t answer him.”
And you also, today, finally now, John Carlin, have the president’s attorney saying the president feels vindicated.
JOHN CARLIN: Well, I think in those conversations and in that back-and-forth, you also had Director Comey informing the president, according to this opening statement, that he had recounted their previous conversation to the then-acting deputy attorney general, Dana Boente.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.
JOHN CARLIN: And when the president called, I think, the second time, the president referenced and said, should I reach out? And it sounds like Director Comey tried to say yes, you should, through White House counsel.
And the idea of making a — potentially making public the results of an investigation, the appropriate channel, the one that’s set up, there’s actually a memorandum on White House contacts that’s designed to ensure that that type of contact takes place lawyer to lawyer, White House counsel to deputy attorney general, to avoid either the actuality of interference with an investigation or the appearance.
And you can see this kind of confused back-and-forth. To me, the most troubling of the exchanges that are detailed — and the rest do provide context for it — would be the direct request to end an investigation of an associate, if true, related to the investigation of Flynn.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Matt Apuzzo, just finally, very quickly, the fact that Director Comey made these notes immediately after each one of these meetings or phone calls, I think, adds to the remarkable nature of all this.
MATT APUZZO: That’s right.
I mean, you have a you have an FBI director who clearly was so uncomfortable with these interactions, he felt like he had to document them, and not just document them. I mean, it’s like, this is where he was sitting and this is where he was sitting, and I walked out the door near the grandfather clock, and then, halfway through, this guy knocked on the door.
I mean, it is really detailed stuff that is clearly intended for future consultation and to say, this isn’t just my memory. I sat down and did this in real time.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And we should point out once again the president’s attorney has issued a statement today saying the president feels vindicated, that, he, in essence, thanked James Comey for repeating the fact, he said, that the president himself wasn’t under investigation.
So this will clearly continue. We’re going to hear from Mr. Comey tomorrow himself.
John Carlin, Matt Apuzzo, thank you very much.
JOHN CARLIN: Thank you.
MATT APUZZO: Thank you.