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What does Comey’s testimony mean for the Russia probe?

June 8, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
While the nation watched, former FBI Director James Comey offered a raft of revelations about his interactions with President Trump in a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, his first public appearance since being fired. Lisa Desjardins, John Yang and Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times join Judy Woodruff to discuss the major headlines that emerged from his testimony.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: From James Comey today, a raft of revelations.

With the nation watching in his first public experience since being fired, the former FBI director told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he made notes to guard against President Trump lying right after each of their discussions, and leaked some of those memos after he was fired.

He assured the president several times that he wasn’t under investigation. And he concluded that Mr. Trump wanted to pressure him to end the FBI probe of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and his Russian contacts.

Comey told Committee Vice Chairman Senator John (sic) Warner that he began writing everything down after an initial meeting last January.

SEN. MARK WARNER,  D-Va.: You’ve had extensive experience at the Department of Justice and at the FBI. You’ve worked under presidents of both parties.

What was it about that meeting that led you to determine that you needed to start putting down a written record?

JAMES COMEY, Former Director, FBI: A combination of things, I think the circumstances, the subject matter, and the person I was interacting with.

Circumstances, first, I was alone with the president of the United States, or the president-elect, soon to be president. The subject matter, I was talking about matters that touch on the FBI’s core responsibility, and that relate to the president, president-elect personally, and then the nature of the person.

I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document. That combination of things, I had never experienced before, but it led me to believe I got to write it down and I got to write it down in a very detailed way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Apologies. That was, of course, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia.

So, the men also met on Valentine’s Day, when, Comey says, the president asked him about the Michael Flynn investigation. He told Senator James Risch the intent was clear to him.

SEN. JAMES RISCH, R-Idaho: There’s 28 words there that are in quotes.

And it says — quote — “I hope” — this is the president speaking — “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Now, those are his exact words, is that correct?

JAMES COMEY: Correct.

SEN. JAMES RISCH: And you wrote them here and you put them in quotes.

JAMES COMEY: Correct.

SEN. JAMES RISCH: OK. Thank you for that. He did not direct you to let it go?

JAMES COMEY: Not in his words, no.

SEN. JAMES RISCH: He did not order you to let it go?

JAMES COMEY: Again, those words are not an order.

And the reason I keep saying his words is, I took it as a direction.

SEN. JAMES RISCH: Right.

JAMES COMEY: I mean, this is a president of the United States with me alone saying, I hope this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do. I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.

SEN. JAMES RISCH: You may have taken it as a direction, but that’s not what he said.

JAMES COMEY: Correct.

SEN. JAMES RISCH: He said, I hope.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Comey’s accounts of these meetings first came out in the press last month, after President Trump dismissed him as FBI director.

Today, Comey confirmed in answering a question from Senator Susan Collins that the leak came from him.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, R-Maine: Did you show copies of your memos to anyone outside of the Department of Justice?

JAMES COMEY: Yes.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: And to whom did you show copies?

JAMES COMEY: I asked — the president tweeted on Friday after I got fired that I better hope there’s not tapes.

I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday night, because it didn’t dawn on me originally, that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might a tape. And my judgment was, I need to get that out into the public square.

And so I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself for a variety of reasons. But I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, let’s dig into some of these main headlines from today’s hearing now with our own Lisa Desjardins. She was in the hearing room today. Our John Yang was at the White House.

And, in a moment, we will be joined by Matt Apuzzo. He’s been reporting all this — on all this for The New York Times.

John Yang, I’m going to come to you first.

The president’s personal attorney was out today with the president’s response. Tell us about that and about what the White House is saying.

JOHN YANG: That’s right, Judy.

Of course, we didn’t hear from the president himself or from any White House official. They have delegated that task of responding to all these inquiries to the president’s personal attorney, as you say, Marc Kasowitz.

He flatly denied that the president asked Comey either for his loyalty or to drop the Flynn investigation. And then he said something that I’m told we’re going to be hearing a lot more of over the coming days from supporters of the president. He used Comey’s admission that he got his version of events into the press, he used that to try to undermine Comey, to try to portray Comey as part of what Mr. Trump supporters see as a conspiracy among Washington, entrenched Washington insiders, what they call the deep state, a conspiracy to try to get Mr. Trump out of the White House.

MARC KASOWITZ, Attorney for Donald Trump: Contrary to numerous false press accounts leading up to today’s hearing, Mr. Comey has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told President Trump privately, that is that the president was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference.

It is overwhelmingly clear that there have been and continue to be those in government who are actively attempting to undermine this administration with selective and illegal leaks of classified information and privileged communications. Mr. Comey has now admitted that he is one of these leakers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, John, you’re saying that the president’s attorney is suggesting that this is part of a much larger effort?

JOHN YANG: This is something that the president’s supporters have been talking about, and the president’s — and inside the White House, people like Steve Bannon have been talking about — that entrenched Washington bureaucrats, as they say, what they call the deep state, is trying to get the president out with these leaks, not only on this case, but on other things about — involving intelligence throughout the government.

As a matter of fact, just this afternoon, another fund-raising appeal went out to the president’s supporters from his campaign asking for money using not the specific Comey testimony, but using this idea of the deep state trying to get the president out to — as part of their fund-raising appeal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we know there were ads being run by some of the president’s supporters in advance of this hearing critical of Director Comey.

Lisa Desjardins at the Capitol, let me turn to you now. You had a chance — you were in the hearing room. You have had a chance to talk to some of the senators after the public hearing. And, of course, that was followed by a closed hearing.

What are they telling you about their reaction to what they heard today?

LISA DESJARDINS: Well, Judy, this was an extraordinary hearing.

I counted 259 questions in just over two-and-a-half-hours to Mr. Comey, and after all of that, in the end, Judy, I have to say, overall, I came away with a feeling from senators that they are moving in a more bipartisan direction than they were a couple weeks ago.

There were very few senators who were willing to take sides on this debate between Mr. Comey and President Trump and his attorney, not willing to say yet who they believe in that fight. Mostly, they’re deferring to Mr. Mueller and the upcoming — his special investigation.

There were a few partisan hits. Chuck Schumer, Democratic leader in the Senate, took to the floor and said the clouds over the White House have become darker. On the other hand, we have Roy Blunt of Missouri, Republican, who said he felt that today the president did better than worse.

And another sign of that, Judy, talking to Ron Wyden, Democrat, who is one of the president’s sharpest critics, when asked about the idea of obstruction of justice and what he thought came from this hearing today on that front, he said, to him, obstruction of justice is a lawyer’s term. He thought there was instead a pattern of abuse of power.

What that told me, Judy, was that they didn’t feel that they made any ground on that case for obstruction of justice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Lisa, just to follow up, when you say your sense is that the senators, members of Congress may be moving in a more bipartisan fashion, why?

LISA DESJARDINS: Senator after senator, including Republicans like Marco Rubio, Democrats like Mark Warner, who about a month ago seemed to be at odds with each other even about direction, and including Chairman Burr — there were accusations even within the Intelligence Committee, even on the Senate side — I don’t hear that anymore.

Instead, I hear all these senators in a more unified voice saying they want to answer these questions later. They’re not going to make conclusions yet. They’re withholding judgment. They’re also unified on the idea that they need more information from the intelligence chief.

And for news on that, Judy, I’m told by the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Mr. Burr, that they are planning to have a hearing, probably next week he says, closed-doors, with those intelligence chiefs, who they feel didn’t answer their questions yesterday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Lisa.

And we are also joined by Matt Apuzzo, reporter for The New York Times who broke many of the stories that frankly led up to what we have seen today.

Matt, you have done — you have spent so much time looking into all of this. How did what Director Comey, former Director Comey, had to say today square with what you had learned beforehand?

MATT APUZZO, The New York Times: Well, we had known obviously a lot of these individual meanings that Comey and Trump had been having in the several months that Trump’s been in office.

We have known about those, but hearing it from the FBI director, who frankly has been really good in Senate testimony over the years — some of the Senate staff jokingly call him Senator Comey, because he’s really — he does a really good job.

But this was a an unusual bit for Comey. He was obviously untethered and unrestrained by the limitations of a bureaucratic job now that he’s a private citizen. And we saw him more — we saw a more emotional, frankly, blunt former FBI director.

Any time somebody in Washington says the word lie, you know they’re taking the gloves off, because everybody likes to soft-pedal that word around here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Matt, one other thing I want to ask you about quickly.

And that is, there was a reference during the hearing. Director Comey was asked about a piece that you and two other The New York Times reporters wrote. It appeared back in February, on February the 14th.

MATT APUZZO: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was really the first report of extensive contacts between the people around then-candidate Donald Trump and Russian officials.

We heard James Comey today say that he didn’t think that there was much accurate in the article. What’s your version of that?

MATT APUZZO: Yes, it’s obviously very hard to sort of get in a back-and-forth on classified information with a former FBI director, especially when he won’t say what’s inaccurate.

The main point of the story, as you said, was that there were repeated contacts between members of Trump’s campaign and people tied to Russian intelligence. And, frankly, we only know more about that now. We know Carter Page. We know Jared Kushner was meeting with, you know, Sergey Gorkov from VEB. We know about a meeting in the Seychelles. We know all of these meetings that happened.

We know Stone is talking to Guccifer 2.0, who is a front for Russian intelligence. So, it’s hard — that part, we know is true. It’s hard to say what he’s — what he is taking an issue with, whether he’s splitting hair on whether it’s a Russian intelligence officer or Russian intelligence agent, or whether he’s saying the — we said — we attributed this to intercepts and call logs, whether he is saying, no, no, no, it wasn’t intercepts and call logs, it was human intelligence.

So, it’s hard to get into that back-and-forth. And we’re going to continue reporting. We did a story on this today. And doing this stuff, you want to try to be as transparent as possible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For sure.

Matt Apuzzo with The New York Times, thank you for that.

John Yang at the White House, Lisa Desjardins at the Capitol, thank you, all three.

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