Comey says Trump demanded 'loyalty' in private meeting

FBI Director James B. Comey listens to a question from a reporter during a media conference in San Francisco, Calif., Feb. 27, 2014. (Photo by Ben Margot/AP)
FBI Director James B. Comey listens to a question from a reporter during a media conference in San Francisco, Calif., Feb. 27, 2014. 

Former FBI Director James Comey's testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee won't begin until tomorrow morning, but he's submitted his opening statement to the panel -- which will be delivered under oath -- and it's been published online for public review, reportedly at Comey's request.

And it's quite a read. In his sworn statement, Comey will offer details surrounding several interactions he's had with Donald Trump, both before his presidential inauguration and after, some of which will reinforce concerns that the president obstructed justice by applying pressure on the FBI director during an ongoing investigation.

Consider, for example, the private dinner Trump had with Comey the week after the presidential inauguration:

"The President began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI Director, which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to. He said that lots of people wanted my job and, given the abuse I had taken during the previous year, he would understand if I wanted to walk away."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 ten-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. I added that I was not on anybody's side politically and could not be counted on in the traditional political sense, a stance I said was in his best interest as the President."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. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner."

The fact that the president tried to connect loyalty to Comey's continued employment is obviously problematic.

At the same dinner, Trump later returned to the same subject, again telling Comey, "I need loyalty." When the FBI director said the president could always count on him to be honest, Trump said, "That's what I want, honest loyalty."

Three weeks later, Trump had another one-on-one conversation with Comey, which was even more egregious.

When the door by the grandfather clock closed, and we were alone, the President began by saying, "I want to talk about Mike Flynn." Flynn had resigned the previous day. The President began by saying Flynn hadn't done anything wrong in speaking with the Russians, but he had to let him go because he had misled the Vice President. He added that he had other concerns about Flynn, which he did not then specify.The President then made a long series of comments about the problem with leaks of classified information – a concern I shared and still share.... The President then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, "He is a good guy and has been through a lot." 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 went on to note there was some ambiguity as to what "this" referred to in "let this go," but the comments are difficult, if not impossible, to defend: this appears to have been a sitting president encouraging the then-FBI director to go easy on someone under a federal investigation. (Try to imagine what congressional Republicans would say if Barack Obama fired an aide under investigation, and then told the FBI director to let up on the aide in a behind-closed-doors conversation.)

In two subsequent phone calls -- one in late March, the other in early April -- Trump reportedly told Comey that the investigation into the Russia scandal had created a "cloud" that undermined his presidency. Trump asked what Comey could do to "lift the cloud," which lends further credence to concerns that the president was improperly intervening in an ongoing investigation by learning on the FBI director.

And, of course, we now know that when Comey didn't "lift the cloud" or "let go" of the Flynn matter, the president fired him.

If you read the full statement -- and you should, because it's fascinating -- many of the anecdotes will seem familiar, because accounts related to Comey and Trump have been reported in the media in recent weeks and months. But it's one thing to read a news account based on sources close to Comey; it's qualitatively more powerful to read detailed sworn congressional testimony as prepared by the former director of the FBI himself.

Some of the initial reactions from Trump supporters suggest they see Comey's statement as potentially encouraging -- because the former FBI director notes that Trump himself isn't being investigated as part of the counter-espionage probe.

But that's almost certainly an overly narrow way of looking at the statement. Comey's version of events points to presidential conduct that was highly dubious, and will make it easier for Trump's critics to accuse him of obstructing justice.

What's more, while the former FBI director's account suggests the president isn't personally being targeted in the counter-espionage investigation, Comey's statement makes no mention of whether Trump has been or will be scrutinized over possible obstruction allegations.

In other words, Trump loyalists may look for exculpatory crumbs, but this opening statement intensifies the crisis facing the Trump presidency.

Postscript: It's important to emphasize, in case there's any confusion, that Comey's version of events come from contemporaneous notes shared with the FBI leadership at the time. We're not talking about an aggrieved former employee, reflecting on events from months earlier, complaining about the former boss who showed him the door. The details come by way of memos Comey wrote at the time, documenting developments as they occurred.

And before anyone asks why he has no similar memos about his interactions with Barack Obama, the former president apparently never gave him reason to. What's more, their personal interactions were quite limited.

From the opening statement: "I spoke alone with President Obama twice in person (and never on the phone) –once in 2015 to discuss law enforcement policy issues and a second time, briefly, for him to say goodbye in late 2016. In neither of those circumstances did I memorialize the discussions. I can recall nine one-on-one conversations with President Trump in four months – three in person and six on the phone."