Questions of credibility arise after Comey testifies on Trump

WASHINGTON (KTVU AND AP) -- Former FBI Director James Comey provided testimony for nearly three hours to a Senate Intelligence Committee and blatantly stated that President Donald Trump and his administration had lied to the public.

Comey, who was fired abruptly on May 9th, said all nine of their private meetings and conversations were initiated by President Trump. That was a sharp contrast to the president's public statements that Comey had requested a private dinner meeting.

Comey called White House statements "lies, plain and simple."  He also said he took notes on their conversations because he worried the president "might lie" later, and had told his direct superior Attorney General Jeff Sessions that it was inappropriate for Comey and the President to meet alone, given Comey was leading an investigation into Russian election interference and possible connections with the Trump campaign.

The dramatic testimony, publicly televised, raised questions about President Trump's credibility. Comey presented his concerns, about the inappropriateness of the president ordering everyone but Comey out of the Oval Office, before expressing the "hope" that Comey would not continue the FBI's investigation into Michael Flynn's Russia ties.

Comey also revealed that he had decided to leak his Trump meeting memos to the media through a friend at Columbia University, after the President’s May 12th tweet warning Comey there might be “tapes” of their conversations. Comey said in testimony Thursday that he welcomed the statement as possible corroboration of his account.

"Lordy, I hope there are tapes," Comey said.

President Trump's personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz vigorously vouched for Trump's integrity, saying he did not try to get the FBI to end the Michael Flynn investigation and also did not seek a loyalty pledge from Comey. Both were quick to note that Comey validated one Trump claim: that Comey had told him three times that he was not personally the target of the investigation.

Kasowitz seemed to directly contradict two key aspects of Comey's testimony.

"The President never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone, including the President never suggested that that Mr. Comey "let Flynn go," said Kasowitz, "The President also never told Mr. Comey, "I need loyalty, I expect loyalty" He never said it in form and he never said it in substance."  

University of San Francisco Political Science Professor James Taylor says the attorney's statements raise the question of which man the American public will believe.

"I think they have to undermine the credibility of the witness. This is what lawyers do. James Comey is a very credible witness. His credibility is what mattered most in that room," said Taylor.

Taylor also noted that President Trump was unusually quiet, posting no responses on his Twitter accounts.

"Someone has gotten through to him to persuade him that this is not the time to tweet, because we've seen that the courts have used his tweets against him in the past and whatever he says in response to Comey's testimony could be used against him," said Taylor.

Comey himself is a controversial figure. He outraged Democrats last year with his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email practices, including the decision to publicly disclose the potential of new information 10 days before the election. During his final appearance on Capitol Hill as FBI director, he vastly overstated the number of emails that were uncovered late in the campaign, prompting the bureau to correct his testimony.

Still, it was telling that few Republicans who don't work for Trump stepped in to defend the president's version of his contacts with the former FBI director. The toughest questioning of Comey by GOP lawmakers on the Senate intelligence committee focused more on whether the interactions he described amounted to legal trouble for Trump than on whether he was telling the truth about the nine meetings and phone calls he had with the president.

Instead, some supportive GOP lawmakers simply argued that Trump's action were a result of well-meaning inexperience or dedication to his aides.

"I'm frankly proud of him for standing up for someone who was as loyal as Mike Flynn was throughout the campaign," Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., said of Comey's dramatic depiction of an Oval Office meeting in which Trump allegedly said he hoped the FBI would let the Flynn investigation go. Collins spoke after the prepared text of Comey's opening statement was released Wednesday.

House Speaker Paul Ryan also did not dispute Comey's assertions. He vouched for the importance of the FBI's independence, and excused Trump's blurring of that line as missteps by a man who isn't "steeped in the long-running protocols" that govern the relationship between the White House and the law enforcement agency. 

"The president's new at this. He's new at government," Ryan told reporters on Capitol Hill as Comey's dramatic testimony unfolded. "He's learning as he goes."

A Gallup poll conducted in April found that just 36 percent of Americans found Trump "honest and trustworthy" -- down from 42 percent in February.

Trump's own track record -- as president, a candidate and private citizen -- make the questions about the veracity of his own words impossible for the White House to avoid. He memorialized his approach to accuracy in his 1987 book "The Art of the Deal," writing: "People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole."

Trump's shift from real estate mogul and reality TV star to political powerhouse was driven in part by his campaign to spread the lie that President Barack Obama was born outside the United States. He spent his first full day occupying the world's most powerful office inflating the size of the inaugural crowd and demanding that his advisers do the same. Last month, he created a voter fraud commission to investigate "millions of people who voted illegally," despite there being no proof of such fraudulent voting.

The president's abrupt firing of Comey on May 9 -- and the White House's bungled handling of the controversial move -- has intensified questions about Trump's credibility. At first, the White House cited a harsh memo about Comey's performance from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as the justification, though Trump later said he would have fired Comey regardless of what the Justice Department recommended.

When Comey allies began fighting back with negative stories about Trump in the press, the president issued a startling warning on Twitter: "James Comey better hope that there are no `tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"

The White House has avoided all questions about whether such tapes exist.

"President Trump, if you disagree with anything the director said today play the tapes for all of America to hear. Or, admit that there were no tapes," said Senator Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat and Senate Minority Leader.
Comey provided left one substantial question unanswered: How did the FBI know Attorney General Jeff Sessions was going to step aside from the investigation into the Trump campaign's Russia ties?

The Justice Department responded late Thursday, saying that after consultations with department ethics officials Sessions recused himself because of his involvement in Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, "for that reason, and that reason alone."

The department's statement did not directly respond to Comey's comment that he was "aware of facts" that would make Sessions' continued involvement in the Russia probe problematic. Nor did it explain why Comey said he could not discuss those reasons in public.

Comey testified that President Donald Trump had expressed hope he would end an FBI investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. He said the request made him uncomfortable, but he chose not to relay that information to Sessions because he was convinced the attorney general would recuse himself from Russia-related matters. Career Justice Department officials had been recommending he step aside, Comey said.

Sessions, a close Trump adviser, withdrew from the Russia investigation March 2 after acknowledging two previously undisclosed contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last summer and fall. The statement made no mention of that issue.

Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Al Franken, D-Minn., last week released a letter urging the FBI to investigate whether Sessions had falsely testified under oath when he said at his January confirmation hearing that he hadn't had any contacts with Russia. In addition to the two meetings that Sessions has acknowledged, the senators pointed to the possibility of a separate encounter at an April 2016 Trump campaign event that Sessions and Kislyak attended.

The Justice Department has acknowledged that Sessions was at the Mayflower Hotel event in Washington, but said there were no private or side conversations that day.

Comey's statement resonated Thursday on Capitol Hill. Democratic lawmakers, some of whom were already concerned that Sessions' involvement in Comey's May 9 firing violated his recusal, said they would make it a top priority.

The fact that information about Sessions was classified and Comey couldn't answer "means there's something out there that he knows about that the public doesn't, and that he thinks bears on a need for Sessions to recuse himself in matters that relate to Russia," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he could "spend a lot of time on this in the days ahead."

Comey also said he didn't know whether Sessions had violated the terms of his recusal, and that would depend on whether the reason for his firing was related to the Russia investigation.

In a speech to the Faith and Freedom Coalition Thursday, President Trump did make one statement, “we are under siege.”