Former FBI director James Comey accused US President Donald Trump of firing him to try to undermine the agency’s investigation into possible collusion by his campaign team with Russia’s alleged efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.
In the most eagerly anticipated US congressional hearing in years, Comey told lawmakers on Thursday the Trump administration had lied and defamed him and the Federal Bureau of Investigation after the president dismissed him on May 9, Reuters reports.
During more than two hours of testimony, Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee he believed Trump had directed him in February to drop an FBI probe into the Republican president’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn as part of the broader Russia investigation, the news agency said.
Comey would not say whether he thought the president sought to obstruct justice, but added it would be up to special counsel Robert Mueller, who is now investigating the Russia allegations, “to sort that out”.
“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 testified.
Sitting alone at a small table facing a bank of senators who fired question after question, Comey gave short, deliberative answers.
He painted a picture of an overbearing president who he did not trust and who pressured him to stop the FBI Flynn probe.
Trump critics say 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 his fellow Republicans who control the Senate and House of Representatives have shown little appetite for such a move.
Comey did not make major new revelations about any 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 US healthcare system and making tax cuts.
Nevertheless, the Russia matter is likely to continue to overshadow Trump’s presidency, especially as the FBI probe has already ensnared not only Flynn but also Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has had to recuse himself from the investigation.
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 matter.
Asked why he thought Trump fired him, Comey said he did not know for sure. 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.”
Comey repeatedly said there were details he could not discuss in a public session, making clear he had sensitive information he could disclose only in a closed session with the senators.
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.
His accusations could further mire Trump’s administration in legal difficulties. Mueller and several congressional committees are investigating what US intelligence agencies have concluded was an effort by Russia to help Trump win the election by discrediting Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton through the hacking and disclosure of damaging emails and other steps.
Russia has denied such interference. The White House has denied any collusion with Moscow.
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