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Fired FBI Chief Comey Testifies before Senate. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired June 8, 2017 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[10:00:00]

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: He is going through a crowd of people, who include Vice President Pence as well as Reince Priebus. What did all those people know? Where are that conversations with them.

(CROSSTALK)

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Why does the president feel the need, first of all, to get everybody out of the room? I would argue that it's probably because he knew what it was something he perhaps shouldn't have been asking. And he needed to do that privately, particularly not in front of his attorney general or the vice president or even his, you know, even his son-in-law. I think there is some knowledge on the president's part that, that perhaps this was inappropriate that would seem to me.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And as we see, the senators are getting into their seats maybe just, you know, minutes before this actually starts. Going back to kind of what this is all about. I think is important, that this is a fact-finding mission. This is the Senate doing its job of oversight, over the executive branch.

And the fact of the matter is that what the president did was something that is, if James Comey is saying what really happened is something that is maybe not illegal, we'll see. But isn't the way things are usually done here and it is the United States Congress's job to make sure that there are checks and balances. I mean, at its core, that's what this is about.

Then, the next step is going to be what it means politically, because you know, again, the criminal investigation is going on, maybe just starting in earnest. But this is going to be the, the kind of court of public opinion and already the president is going into this day with a record-low approval rating. Even among his base it's bad and can they keep the base or is that going to change after today?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And today is a giant springboard to what? In the sense that if you listened to the point Nia just made, the person who served the president's dinner is going to get questioned by this committee, if not, the special counsel, the vice president, everybody else, to layout the fact-finding. So, no matter what your conclusion is after this, this is going to take weeks, if not months.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We are only moments away, Anderson, from the start of this historic hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. We're of course going to stick by it every step of the way.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf thanks very much. We are back now with our panel. David, there have been - as Trump's words obviously, what are you looking for in the testimony today? -

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right.

COOPER: What questions --

URBAN: So, Anderson, my simple point is this, you know, everybody is talking about how Director Comey is a tough guy. We know during the Bush administration he ran lights blazing to lay in front of the death bed of John -

COOPER: And by the way, there he is arriving -

URBAN: John Ashcroft -- to make this quickly. Yes, he had nine meetings - nine meetings with this president. And he couldn't cowboy up, quickly man up and say to the president, this is an inappropriate discussion for you and I to have. Instead, he runs out to his car and scribbles notes down for some later date.

COOPER: Jen Psaki, what are you looking for today?

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think this is a little sad that this is what the Republican side and Trump supporters are saying. This is not about Comey. He wouldn't win a popularity contest in the Obama administration either. This is about what President Trump said. And that's what we're going explore today.

URBAN: But Jen, his job was to say to the president. This is inappropriate. That's your job to say to the president, this is not appropriate. -

(CROSSTALK)

PSAKI: And we will hear him say it today, David.

COOPER: Director Comey has sat down. Jim Acosta, as we wait obviously, photographers are going to be taking some pictures. The -- I'm sorry - Jim Sciutto --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- That's quite a picture right there.

COOPER: Yes. This was supposed to start at 10:00 a.m. It is likely going to start any minute now.

Jeff Toobin, just in terms of what -- how long this is going to go, I mean, this may be several hours of testimony.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Absolutely. And one thing I think people should keep an eye on is how bad senators are at asking questions and how much they like to talk rather than ask questions. And just keep a little clock in your mind of each senator, how much time they spent talking and how much time they actually listened to what Comey has to say. It is disgraceful how bad these senators are at asking questions and that is one prediction that I am very confident in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And if this were a serious fact-finding effort, it would be done by committee council and not by the Senate.

TOOBIN: Absolutely.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But yesterday, they did seem interested in fact finding.

COOPER: Let's listen in.

BURR: ... your willingness to appear before the committee today, and more importantly, I thank you for your dedicated service and leadership to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Your appearance today speaks to the trust we have built over the years, and I'm looking forward to a very open and candid discussion today.

BURR: I'd like to remind my colleagues that we will reconvene in closed session at 1 PM today and I ask that you reserve for that venue any questions that might get into classified information. The director has been very gracious with his time, but the vice chairman and I have worked out a very specific timeline for his commitment to be on the Hill, so we will do everything we can to meet that agreement.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence exists to certify for the other 85 members of the United States Senate and the American people that the intelligence community is operating lawfully and has the necessary authorities and tools to accomplish its mission and keep America safe. Part of our mission, beyond the oversight we continue to provide to the intelligence community and its activities, is to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. The committee's work continues. This hearing represents part of that effort.

Jim, allegations have been swirling in the press for the last several weeks, and today's your opportunity to set the record straight. Yesterday, I read with interest your statement for the record. And I think it provides some helpful details surrounding your interactions with the president.

It clearly lays out your understanding of those discussions, actions you took following each conversation and your state of mind. I very much appreciate your candor, and I think it's helpful as we work through to determine the ultimate truth behind possible Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

Your statement also provides texture and context to your interactions with the president, from your vantage point, and outlines a strained relationship. The American people need to hear your side of the story just as they need to hear the president's descriptions of events. These interactions also highlight the importance of the committee's ongoing investigation. Our experienced staff is interviewing all relevant parties and some of the most sensitive intelligence in our country's possession.

We will establish the facts, separate from rampant speculation, and lay them out for the American people to make their own judgment. Only then will we as a nation be able to move forward and to put this episode to rest. There are several outstanding issues not addressed in your statement that I hope you'll clear up for the American people today. Did the president's request for loyalty -- your impression that -- that the one-on-one dinner of January 27th was, and I quote, "at least in part an effort to create some sort of patronage relationship," or his March 30th phone call asking what you could do to lift the cloud of Russia investigation in any way, alter your approach of the FBI's investigation into General Flynn or the broader investigation into Russia and possible links to the campaign?

In your opinion, did potential Russian efforts to establish links with individuals in the Trump orbit rise to the level we could define as collusion? Or was it a counterintelligence concern?

There's been a significant public speculation about your decision- making related to the Clinton e-mail investigation. Why did you decide publicly -- to publicly announce FBI's recommendations that the Department of Justice not pursue criminal charges? You have described it as a choice between a bad decision and a worse decision. The American people need to understand the facts behind your action.

This committee is uniquely suited to investigate Russia's interference in the 2016 elections. We also have a unified, bipartisan approach to what is a highly charged partisan issue. Russian activities during 2016 election may have been aimed at one party's candidate, but as my colleague, Senator Rubio, says frequently, in 2018 and 2020, it could be aimed at anyone, at home or abroad.

My colleague, Senator Warner, and I have worked in -- have worked to to stay in lockstep on this investigation. We've had our differences on approach at times. But I've constantly stressed that we need to be a team. And I think Senator Warner agrees with me.

We must keep these questions above politics and partisanship. It's too important to be tainted by anyone trying to score political points.

With that, again, I welcome you, Director.

And I turn to the vice chairman for any comments he might have.

WARNER: Well, thank you, Mr. Chairman.

And let me start by, again, absolutely (ph) thanking all the members of the committee for the seriousness in which they've taken on this task.

WARNER: Mr. Comey, thank you for agreeing to come testify as part of this committee's investigation into Russia. I realize that this hearing has been, obviously, the focus of a lot of Washington in the last few days. But the truth is many Americans who may be tuning in today probably haven't focused on every twist and turn of the investigation.

So I'd like to briefly describe, at least from this senator's standpoint, what we already know and what we're still investigating. To be clear, this whole (ph) investigation is not about relitigating the election. It's not about who won or lost. And it sure as heck is not about Democrats versus Republicans.

We're here because a foreign adversary attacked us right here at home, plain and simple, not by guns or missiles, but by foreign operatives seeking to hijack our most important democratic process -- our presidential election.

Russian spies engaged in a series of online cyber raids and a broad campaign of disinformation, all ultimately aimed at sowing chaos to us to undermine public faith in our process, in our leadership and ultimately in ourselves.

And that's not just this senator's opinion, it is the unanimous determination of the entire U.S. intelligence community. So we must find out the full story, what the Russians did, and, candidly, as some other colleagues have mentioned, why they were so successful. And, more importantly, we must determine the necessary steps to take to protect our democracy and ensure they can't do it again.

Chairman mentioned elections in 2018 and 2020. In my home state of Virginia, we have elections this year, in 2017. Simply put, we cannot let anything or anyone prevent us from getting to the bottom of this.

Now, Mr. Comey, let me say at the outset we haven't always agreed on every issue. In fact, I've occasionally questioned some of the actions you've taken. But I've never had any reason to question your integrity, your expertise or your intelligence.

You've been a straight shooter with this committee, and have been willing to speak truth to power, even at the risk of your own career, which makes the way in which you were fired by the president ultimately shocking.

WARNER: Recall, we began this entire process with the president and his staff first denying that the Russians were ever involved, and then falsely claiming that no one from his team was never in touch with any Russians.

We know that's just not the truth. Numerous Trump associates had undisclosed contacts with Russians before and after the election, including the president's attorney general, his former national security adviser and his current senior adviser, Mr. Kushner.

That doesn't even begin to count the host of additional campaign associates and advisers who've also been caught up in this massive web. We saw Mr. Trump's campaign manager, Mr. Manafort, forced to step down over ties to Russian-backed entities. The national security adviser, General Flynn, had to resign over his lies about engagements with the Russians.

And we saw the candidate him -- himself, express an odd and unexplained affection for the Russian dictator, while calling for the hacking of his opponent. There's a lot to investigate. Enough, in fact that then Director Comey publicly acknowledged that he was leading an investigation into those links between Mr. Trump's campaign and the Russian government.

As the director of the FBI, Mr. Comey was ultimately responsible for conducting that investigation, which might explain why you're sitting now as a private citizen.

What we didn't know was, at the same time that this investigation was proceeding, the president himself appears to have been engaged in an effort to influence, or at least co-opt, the director of the FBI. The testimony that Mr. Comey has submitted for today's hearing is very disturbing.

For example, on January 27th, after summoning Director Comey to dinner, the president appears to have threatened the (ph) director's job while telling him, quote, "I need loyalty. I expect loyalty."

WARNER: At a later meeting, on February 14th, the president asked the attorney general to leave the Oval Office so that he could privately ask Director Comey, again, quote, "to see way clear (ph) to letting Flynn go."

That is a statement that Director Comey interpreted as a -- as a request that he drop the investigation, connected to General Flynn's false statements. Think about it: the president of the United States asking the FBI director to drop an ongoing investigation.

And, after that, the president called the FBI director on two additional occasions, March 30th and April 11th, and asked him again, quote, "to lift the cloud" on the Russian investigation.

Now, Director Comey denied each of these improper requests. The loyalty pledge, the admonition to drop the Flynn investigation, the request to lift the cloud on the Russia investigation. Of course, after his refusals, Director Comey was fired.

The initial explanation for the firing didn't pass any smell test. So now Director Comey was fired because (ph) he didn't treat Hillary Clinton appropriately. Of course, that explanation lasted about a day, because the president himself then made very clear that he was thinking about Russia when he decided to fire Director Comey.

Shockingly, reports suggest that the president admitted as much in an Oval Office meeting with the Russians the day after Director Comey was fired, disparaging our country's top law enforcement official as a, quote/unquote, "nut job." The president allegedly suggested that his firing relieved great pressure on his feelings about Russia.

This is not happening in isolation. At the same time the president was engaged in these efforts with Director Comey, he was also, at least allegedly, asking senior leaders of the intelligence community to downplay the Russia investigation or to intervene with the director.

Yesterday, we had DNI Director Coats and NSA Director Admiral Rogers, who were offered a number of opportunities to flatly deny those press reports. They expressed their opinions, but they did not take that opportunity to deny those reports. They did not take advantage of that opportunity. In my belief, that's not how the president of the United States should behave.

Regardless of the outcome of our investigation into the Russia links, Director Comey's firing and his testimony raise separate and troubling questions that we must get to the bottom of.

Again, as I said at the outset, I've seen firsthand how seriously every member of this committee is taking his work. I'm proud of the committee's efforts so far. Let me be clear: This is not a witch hunt. This is not fake news. It is an effort to protect our country from a new threat that, quite honestly, will not go away any time soon.

So, Mr. Comey, your testimony here today will help us move towards that goal. I look forward to that testimony.

WARNER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

BURR: Thank you, Vice Chairman.

Director, as discussed, when you agreed to appear before the committee, it would be under oath. I'd ask you to please stand. Raise your right hand. Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?

COMEY: (OFF-MIKE)

BURR: Please be seated.

Director Comey, you're now under oath.

And I would just note to members, you will be recognized by seniority for a period up to seven minutes. And again, it is the intent to move to a closed session no later than 1 p.m.

With that, Director Comey, you are recognized. You have the floor for as long as you might need.

COMEY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Ranking Member Warner, members of the committee, thank you for inviting me here to testify today. I've submitted my statement for the record and I'm not going to repeat it here this morning. I thought I would just offer some very brief introductory remarks and then I would welcome your questions.

When I was appointed FBI director in 2013, I understood that I served at the pleasure of the president. Even though I was appointed to a 10 year term, which Congress created in order to underscore the importance of the FBI being outside of politics and independent, I understood that I could be fired by a president for any reason, or for no reason at all. And on May the 9th, when I learned that I had been fired, for that

reason, I immediately came home as a private citizen. But then, the explanations, the shifting explanations, confused me and increasingly concerned me.

COMEY: They confused me because the president and I had had multiple conversations about my job, both before and after he took office. And he had repeatedly told me I was doing a great job and he hoped I would stay. And I had repeatedly assured him that I did intend to stay and serve out the remaining six years of my term.

He told me repeatedly that he had talked to lots of people about me, including our current attorney general, and had learned that I was doing a great job and that I was extremely well-liked by the FBI workforce.

So it confused me when I saw on television the president saying that he actually fired me because of the Russia investigation and learned, again, from the media that he was telling, privately, other parties that my firing had relieved great pressure on the Russia investigation.

I was also confused by the initial explanation that was offered publicly, that I was fired because of the decisions I had made during the election year. That didn't make sense to me for a whole bunch of reasons, including the time and all the water that had gone under the bridge since those hard decisions that had to be made. That didn't make any sense to me.

And although the law required no reason at all to fire an FBI director, the administration then chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader.

Those were lies, plain and simple, and I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them and I'm so sorry that the American people were told them.

I worked every day at the FBI to help make that great organization better. And I say "help" because I did nothing alone at the FBI. There are no indispensable people at the FBI. The organization's great strength is that its values and abilities run deep and wide.

The FBI will be fine without me. The FBI's mission will be relentlessly pursued by its people, and that mission is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States.

COMEY: I will deeply miss being part of that mission, but this organization and its mission will go on long beyond me and long beyond any particular administration.

I have a message before I close for the -- my former colleagues at the FBI. But first, I want the American people to know this truth: The FBI is honest. The FBI is strong. And the FBI is, and always will be, independent. And now to my former colleagues, if I may. I am so sorry that I didn't get the chance to say goodbye to you properly. It was the honor of my life to serve beside you, to be part of the FBI family. And I will miss it for the rest of my life.

Thank you for standing watch. Thank you for doing so much good for this country. Do that good as long as ever you can.

And, Senators, I look forward to your questions.

BURR: Director, thank you for that testimony, both oral and the written testimony that you provided to the committee yesterday and made public to the American people.

The chair would recognize himself, first, for 12 minutes, vice chair for 12 minutes, based upon the agreement we have.

Director, did the Special Counsel's Office review and/or edit your written testimony?

COMEY: No.

BURR: Do you have any doubt that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016

elections?

COMEY: None.

BURR: Do you have any doubt that the Russian government was behind the intrusions in the DNC and the DCCC systems, and the subsequent leaks of that information?

COMEY: No, no doubt.

BURR: Do you have any doubt that the Russian government was behind the cyber intrusion in the state voter files? COMEY: No.

BURR: Do you have any doubt that officials of the Russian government were fully aware of these activities?

COMEY: No doubt.

BURR: Are you confident that no votes cast in the 2016 presidential election were altered?

COMEY: I'm confident. By the time -- when I left as director, I had seen no indication of that whatsoever.

BURR: Director Comey, did the president at any time ask you to stop the FBI investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. elections?

COMEY: Not to my understanding, no.

BURR: Did any individual working for this administration, including the Justice Department, ask you to stop the Russian investigation?

COMEY: No.

BURR: Director, when the president requested that you, and I quote, "let Flynn go," General Flynn had an unreported contact with the Russians, which is an offense. And if press accounts are right, there might have been discrepancies between facts and his FBI testimony.

In your estimation, was General Flynn, at that time, in serious legal jeopardy? And in addition to that, do you sense that the president was trying to obstruct justice, or just seek for a way for Mike Flynn to save face, given he had already been fired?

COMEY: General Flynn, at that point in time, was in legal jeopardy. There was an open FBI criminal investigation of his statements in connection with the Russian contacts and the contacts themselves. And so that was my assessment at the time.

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, but that's a conclusion I'm sure the special counsel will work towards, to try and understand what the intention was there, and whether that's an offense.

BURR: Director, is it possible that, as part of this FBI investigation, the FBI could find evidence of criminality that is not tied to -- to the 2016 elections -- possible collusion or coordination with Russians?

COMEY: Sure.

BURR: So there could be something that just fits a criminal aspect to this that doesn't have anything to do with the 2016 election cycle?

COMEY: Correct. In any complex investigation, when you start turning over rocks, sometimes you find things that are unrelated to the primary investigation, that are criminal in nature.

BURR: Director Comey, you have been criticized publicly for the decision to present your findings on the e-mail investigation directly to the American people. Have you learned anything since that time that would've changed what you said, or how you chose to inform the American people?

COMEY: Honestly, no. I mean, it caused a whole lot of personal pain for me, but, as I look back, given what I knew at the time and even what I've learned since, I think it was the best way to try and protect the justice institution, including the FBI.

BURR: In the public domain is this question of the Steele dossier, a document that has been around, now, for over a year. I'm not sure when the FBI first took possession of it, but the media had it before you had it and we had it.

At the time of your departure from the FBI, was the FBI able to confirm any criminal allegations contained in the Steele document? COMEY: Mr. Chairman, I don't think that's a question I can answer in an open setting because it goes into the details of the investigation.

BURR: Director, the term we hear most often is "collusion." When people are describing possible links between Americans and Russian government entities related to the interference in our election, would you say that it's normal for foreign governments to reach out to members of an incoming administration?

COMEY: Yes.

BURR: At what point does the normal contact cross the line into an attempt to recruit agents or influence (ph) or spies?

COMEY: Difficult to say in the abstract. It depends upon the context, whether there's an effort to keep it covert, what the nature of the requests made of the American by the foreign government are. It's a -- it's a judgment call based on a whole lot of facts.

BURR: At what point would that recruitment become a counterintelligence threat to our country?

COMEY: Again, difficult to answer in the abstract. But when -- when a foreign power is using especially coercion or some sort of pressure to try and co-opt an American, especially a government official, to act on its behalf, that's a serious concern to the FBI and at the heart of the FBI's counterintelligence mission.

BURR: So if you've got a -- a -- a 36-page document of -- of specific claims that are out there, the FBI would have to, for counterintelligence reasons, try to verify anything that might be claimed in there. One, and probably first and foremost, is the counterintelligence concerns that we have about blackmail. Would that be an accurate statement?

COMEY: Yes. If the FBI receives a credible allegation that there is some effort to co-opt, coerce, direct, employ covertly an American on behalf of the foreign power, that's the basis on which a counterintelligence investigation is opened.

BURR: And when you read the dossier, what was your reaction, given that it was 100 percent directed at the president-elect?

COMEY: Not a question I can answer in an open setting, Mr. Chairman.

BURR: OK. When did you become aware of the cyber intrusion?

COMEY: The first cyber -- it was all kinds of cyber intrusions going on all the time. The first Russia-connected cyber intrusion, I became aware of in the late summer of 2015.

BURR: And in that timeframe, there were more than the DNC and the DCCC that were targets.

COMEY: Correct.