James Comey sat down with then President-elect Trump in the gilded confines of his Fifth Ave. penthouse in January to discuss salacious allegations and details about Russian connections floating around in an unverified dossier.
It was the first time the two men were alone in a room together, but it wouldn’t be the last.
The former FBI director doesn’t say exactly how Trump responded to the awkward briefing, which touched on Trump’s travels to Moscow and reports involving Russian hookers, but says that “based on President-elect Trump’s reaction,” he assured him that his personal conduct isn’t under investigation.
Comey wrote up a record of the meeting on a laptop in the car as soon as he got out of the building, a habit he would continue after his three one-on-one encounters with Trump.
Comey will testify under oath on Thursday about his conversations with the President during his much-anticipated appearance before the Senate intelligence committee.
He is expected to answer questions about his dealings with a President who has been hounded by FBI probes, congressional hearings, damaging leaks from the highest levels of government and the appointment of a special counsel to oversee an investigation into possible collusion between Moscow and Trump associates.
Trump, bogged down by the monsoon of Russian interference in the presidential election that led to his winning the White House, reportedly asked then FBI Director Comey in March to “lift the cloud” over his administration.
On Thursday, Comey may cause that storm to intensify.
The former fed will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee that Trump demanded his loyalty in the face of the ongoing investigations into Russia’s cyber campaign and how the President pushed him to personally clear his name.
He will also tell lawmakers that Trump asked him privately to drop a probe into a former top aide and about how meetings with the President left him feeling uncomfortable and “concerned,” according to prepared remarks released by the committee.
Comey, fired by Trump last month, will recount his encounters with the President in his opening statement, beginning with his Jan. 6 sitdown at Trump Tower in Manhattan in which he briefed Trump about the unverified dossier containing potentially damaging material about the businessman.
The meeting was held the same day that a U.S. intelligence report on Russian hacking was declassified and released to the public, showing Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an “influence campaign” aimed at swaying the election in Trump’s favor.
Comey, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA head John Brennan had gone to Trump’s Midtown home to brief him on their findings that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.”
The other intelligence leaders asked Comey, who was the only one staying on in his position, to personally brief Trump on the raunchier aspects of the unverified information one-on-one so as not to embarrass the President-to-be.
He also assured Trump that the intelligence community did not consider the information to be entirely reliable, informing the President-elect that the FBI “did not have an open counter-intelligence case on him.”
In another notable, yet awkward, exchange, Comey described a private dinner at the White House on Jan. 27 when Trump held his future as FBI director over his head.
“A few moments later, the President said, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,’ ” said Comey, who’d expected other people to be at the dinner. “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.”
When Trump returned to the topic at the end of the meal, Comey only promised “honesty.”
“He paused and then said, ‘That’s what I want, honest loyalty,’ ” the statement said. “I paused, and then said, ‘You will get that from me.’ ”
Comey then added that, “it is possible we understood the phrase ‘honest loyalty’ differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further.”
During a May 12 press briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer denied that Trump had asked Comey for loyalty.
“No,” Spicer said when asked if “the President implored him to pledge his loyalty to the President.”
Comey’s remarks paint a picture of a man so uncomfortable with his interactions with the President that he began keeping written memos of their private discussions.
He said he never did so with former President Barack Obama because they’d only spoken in private twice — and one of those was for Obama to say goodbye in late 2016.
Comey said he spoke privately with Trump nine times in four months.
He said he believed Trump was trying to create a “patronage relationship” with him and described in detail an Oval Office meeting in which Trump urged him not to investigate ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russian officials.
Comey was part of a group giving Trump a counter-terrorism briefing on Feb. 14, but the President asked him to stay behind at the end. Attorney General Jeff Sessions lingered, but Trump shooed him away. Senior adviser Jared Kushner also tried to stay, but was asked to leave. A grandfather clock ticked in the corner, Comey recalls.
“The President then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, ‘He is a good guy and has been through a lot,’ ” Comey says of the one-on-one meeting.
The Oval Office exchange came one day after Flynn had resigned for misleading Vice President Pence about conversations he had with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December.
At one point during the encounter, chief of staff Reince Priebus stuck his head in the door by the grandfather clock, a group of people waiting behind him, and Trump waves him off.
“He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President. He then said, ‘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.’ I replied only that ‘he is a good guy,’ ” Comey says.
Flynn is reportedly central to the FBI’s investigations.
During the campaign and after, Flynn received money from Turkish and Russian sources for lobbying and other efforts. He informed White House counsel Donald McGahn in January that he was under investigation, according to reports.
Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified last month that she warned the White House that Flynn had lied about his contact with Kislyak 18 days before his ouster.
Comey says he was concerned by Trump’s remarks about the former four-star general.
“I had understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December. I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign. I could be wrong, but I took him to be focusing on what had just happened with Flynn’s departure and the controversy around his account of his phone calls,” the remarks say. “Regardless, it was very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.”
That’s the closest Comey comes to addressing whether he believed Trump was trying to obstruct justice in his ongoing — and highly unusual — private conversations with the FBI director.
Comey said he immediately prepared memos about the conversations and told top FBI officials about them, and that the inner circle “decided to keep it very closely held, resolving to figure out what to do with it down the road as our investigation progressed” because he expected Sessions to soon recuse himself and because the incoming deputy attorney general had not yet been confirmed.
After the meeting where Trump brought up the Flynn investigation, Comey says he asked Sessions not to leave him alone with Trump again.
The testimony also confirms Trump’s claim that Comey told him three times he wasn’t personally under investigation, though given all the other details Comey offers, that may be small consolation for the President.
In two subsequent phone calls in late March and early April, Trump asked Comey to “get out” that he wasn’t a target of the investigation and to help “lift the cloud” that hovered over the administration due to the probe, after returning obsessively to deny that the dossier prepared by a former British spy accusing him of having deep ties with Russia — and salacious dealings with Russian prostitutes — were categorically false.
“He described the Russia investigation as ‘a cloud’ that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. 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,’” Comey says.
The former director responded by telling Trump that the agency was investigating the matter as quickly as possible.
“The President went on to say that 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 that we weren’t investigating him,” he writes.
Several other Trump associates have been tied to the investigation into possible links between Trump’s campaign and Russia including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the President’s son-in-law Kushner.
Comey also details how he asked the Department of Justice for help dealing with Trump and never received a response.
The pair’s final conversation again descended into awkwardness. Comey asked Trump to contact the DOJ and to go through the proper channels rather than contacting him directly about the “cloud” over the administration.
“He said he would do that and added, ‘Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.'”
But Comey did not know.
“I did not reply or ask him what he meant by ‘that thing.’ I said only that the way to handle it was to have the White House Counsel call the Acting Deputy Attorney General. He said that was what he would do and the call ended. That was the last time I spoke with President Trump.”
Trump didn’t pressure just Comey himself — a report in The Washington Post this week said that he urged Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Adm. Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, to urge the G-man to back off of Flynn.
The pair staunchly refused to answer questions about conversations they had with Trump in testimony before the Senate Intelligence panel Wednesday, but said they’d never been order to do anything illegal.
Comey’s testimony before the same panel on Thursday will be his first public comments since he was let go.
While the White House initially offered conflicting reasons for Comey’s firing, including his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, Trump said he had been planning the dismissal — and that the Russia investigation played a role in his decision.
The day after Comey’s firing, Trump reportedly bragged about his actions to Russian officials in the Oval Office.
“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump told Kislyak and Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, according to The New York Times. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”