Former FBI Director James Comey said that the bureau had information about Attorney General Jeff Sessions – before he recused himself from overseeing the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election – that would have made it “problematic” for him to be involved in the probe.
In his testimony Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey would not provide details of what information the FBI had, except to say that he could only discuss it privately with the senators.
“He was . . . inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons,” Comey said. “We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make [Sessions’s] continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.”
Sessions has acknowledged meeting twice with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, during the 2016 presidential campaign – once on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention in July and a second time in his Senate office. But lawmakers have asked the FBI to investigate whether Sessions had a third, undisclosed encounter in April with Kislyak at a hotel in Washington, where Trump gave a major foreign policy address. The Justice Department denies the hotel meeting occurred.
As the Russia investigation proceeded, Comey became increasingly uncomfortable about Trump’s interactions with him and took his concerns to Sessions and other senior Justice Department officials. But, Comey said, Sessions’ body language gave him the feeling that there was nothing he could do.
Comey also told the new deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who had just been confirmed by the Senate, about his conversations with the president.
“I spoke to the attorney general, and I spoke to the new deputy attorney general, Mr. Rosenstein, when he took office, and explained my serious concern about the way in which the president is interacting, especially with the FBI,” Comey testified.
It is unclear what, if anything, Rosenstein did in response to Comey.
About two weeks later, Sessions and Rosenstein were both involved with the abrupt firing of Comey. Trump summoned them to the White House and said he wanted to fire Comey and instructed Rosenstein to write a memo about the FBI director, officials have said. The following day, White House officials said that Trump fired Comey because of Rosenstein’s memo, which was critical of Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
But Trump contradicted those officials in a television interview and said he had actually decided to fire Comey on his own and it was because of the Russia investigation.
“Comey made clear that he told Jeff Sessions he was uncomfortable about the meeting he had with the president and asked Sessions to protect him from being in such conversations again, and Sessions did nothing about that,” said Matthew Miller, a former spokesman for the Justice Department during the Obama administration. “He also told Rod Rosenstein about his concern of inappropriate meetings with the president. And we don’t know if Rod Rosenstein did anything about it other than write a memo,” which was used in Comey’s firing.
Comey also turned for help to Dana Boente, who was acting as deputy attorney general before Rosenstein was confirmed, after Trump called the FBI director about the Russia investigation and said it was a “cloud” that was impairing his ability as president. Comey then told Boente about the conversation.
“I did not hear back from him before the president called me again two weeks later,” Comey said in his written testimony.
“I found the whole thing a bit creepy,” said Nick Akerman, a former prosecutor in the Southern District of New York and an assistant special Watergate prosecutor.
“Here are people high up in the Justice Department, and they didn’t feel enough institutional strength and feeling for the Department of Justice to do something about it,” Akerman said. “It seems like they were more afraid of Trump than actually doing the right thing and trying to rectify the situation.”
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Comey how Sessions could be involved in his firing over the Russia investigation when Sessions had recused himself from any involvement in that case in March.
“That’s a question I can’t answer,” Comey said. “I think it’s a reasonable question. If, as the president said, I was fired because of the Russia investigation, why was the attorney general involved in that chain? I don’t know, and so I don’t have an answer for the question.”
Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior released a statement late Thursday saying that Sessions only recused himself from the Russia investigation because of his participation in Trump’s campaign.
“It was for that reason, and that reason alone, the attorney general made the decision on March 2, 2017 to recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States,” Prior said. Since that date, Sessions “has not been briefed on or participated in any investigation within the scope of his recusal,” Prior said.
In his testimony, Comey said that he contacted Sessions after a meeting with Trump in the Oval Office where Sessions and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, were asked to leave and Comey was alone with the president.
“My sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn’t be leaving, which is why he was lingering,” Comey said. “And I don’t know Mr. Kushner well, but I think he picked up on the same thing. And so I knew something was about to happen that I needed to pay very close attention to.”
That was the day after former national security adviser Michael Flynn had been forced to resign, and Trump wanted to talk about Flynn.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Comey quoted Trump as saying. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Comey said he “understood him to be saying that what he wanted me to do was drop any investigation connected to Flynn’s account of his conversations with the Russians.”
Trump’s personal lawyer challenged that account, saying the president never asked for the investigation to be dropped.
After that meeting, Comey told Sessions that he did not want to be alone anymore with Trump and “it can’t happen that you get kicked out of the room and the president talks to me.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., asked Comey how the attorney general responded.
“What did he do, if anything?” Harris asked. “Did he just look at you? Was there a pause for a moment? What happened?”
“I have a recollection of him just kind of looking at me,” Comey replied. “I kind of got – his body language gave me the sense like, ‘What am I going to do?’ . . . He didn’t say anything.”
Justice Department spokesman Prior disputed that account and said that Comey told Sessions that he “wanted to ensure that he and his FBI staff were following proper communications protocol with the White House.”
“The attorney general was not silent,” Prior said. “He responded to this comment by saying that the FBI and the Department of Justice needed to be careful about following appropriate policies regarding contacts with the White House.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Sari Horwitz