The long-awaited testimony of former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey Thursday morning was preceded by the release of his prepared testimony on Wednesday night, in which he appears to confirm much of the reporting about his interactions with President Trump during the months after the 2016 election through mid-April -- about a month before he was fired.
Though the Comey testimony makes compelling reading -- he explicitly describes multiple times at which Trump appeared to ask for “loyalty” from a law enforcement professional, and the president’s explicit request that the FBI drops its investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn -- it raises several questions as well.
When he sits down before the Senate Intelligence Committee this morning, it seems safe to assume that the members of the committee will want answers to them.
What set off the alarms for Comey in his first one-on-one meeting with Trump?
Two weeks before Trump was inaugurated, Comey drew the short straw and was designated by the Director of National Intelligence to brief Trump on the unverified contents of a dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent that alleged that the Russian government had long been cultivating Trump as an asset. The dossier contained claims of financial entanglements and salacious claims of a sexual nature.
At the time, the FBI had been working for months on an investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian intelligence regarding the theft of emails from groups and individuals connected to the Hillary Clinton campaign. Trump was not personally targeted in the investigation at that time, and issue that would prove to be of enormous importance to the president later.
It’s worth quoting Comey at length here:
"In that context, prior to the January 6 meeting, I discussed with the FBI’s leadership team whether I should be prepared to assure President-Elect Trump that we were not investigating him personally. That was true; we did not have an open counter-intelligence case on him. We agreed I should do so if circumstances warranted. During our one-on-one meeting at Trump Tower, based on President-Elect Trump’s reaction to the briefing and without him directly asking the question, I offered that assurance.
I felt compelled to document my first conversation with the President-Elect in a memo. To ensure accuracy, I began to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting. Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward. This had not been my practice in the past."
What's unclear in the prepared testimony is what caused Comey, a veteran of the FBI and the Department of Justice, to rush to a laptop in order to prepare a contemporaneous memo about the discussion with the president.
As Comey states, it was not his habit to immediately document all of his interactions with his superiors in the executive branch; but something about that first meeting with Trump -- a meeting that appears to have been orchestrated by then-DNI James Clapper, not by Trump -- caused him to do so.
What was it?
What about the conversations with Trump not described in the prepared testimony?
It’s probably a minor issue, but at the beginning of his prepared testimony, Comey says that in the four months before he was fired, he had a total of nine one-on-one interactions with the president: “three in person and six on the phone.”
The prepared testimony only mentions five interactions between the two men, three face-to-face meetings at the White House and two phone calls. That leaves four phone calls between the men that Comey does not describe.
The four could be completely immaterial to the issues at hand. However, given that Comey thought it useful to point out that he had only two one-on-one interactions with former President Obama during more than three years serving under him as FBI director -- one of which was simply saying goodbye -- it seems likely that members of the Intelligence Committee will want him to fill in those blanks.
What does “honest loyalty” mean?
According to Comey, during an awkward White House dinner with the president, Trump told him that he expects “loyalty” from his FBI director. Per his description of the exchange, Comey sat stone-faced and offered no reaction.
When Trump revisited the subject later in the meal, Comey said he could offer only his “honesty.”
The two later agreed on a sort of hybrid, “honest loyalty.”
In his testimony, Comey notes, “[I]t is possible we understood the phrase ‘honest loyalty’ differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further. The term –- honest loyalty –- had helped end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he should expect.”
What this leaves unanswered is what Comey himself meant by the term -- something he will surely be asked to clarify.
What was “that thing” they had, you know?
In one of the odder passages in the testimony, Comey notes that in his final phone call with Trump, the president repeated a request that he help lift the “cloud” of the Russia investigation from his presidency.
Comey told him that he should direct his requests to the Deputy Attorney General, who was overseeing the investigation following the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Comey testifies, “He said he would do that and added, ‘Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.’ I did not reply or ask him what he meant by ‘that thing.’”
Just because Comey didn’t ask what Trump meant by “that thing” doesn’t mean the senators won’t. Democrats will likely try to drill down here, seeking to learn if this was another possible attempt by the president to pressure the FBI director.