Morning News Brief: Comey's Testimony, And Russians React
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We have readings this morning from the testimony of James Comey. The former FBI director testifies before a Senate committee today. A little of the drama, though, has been extinguished, Steve, because yesterday, the intelligence committee actually released the public statement that Comey's expected to read at the top of his testimony.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A little of the drama - but this also allows us to consider James Comey in his own words.
MARTIN: Yeah. So let's do that. We're going to read some of his testimony and talk it through with two people. Our congressional correspondent Geoff Bennett and our national security correspondent Greg Myre are both in the studio to unpack all this. Hi, guys.
GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: So Comey, in his written statement, is describing meetings that he had with President Trump, including a one-on-one dinner, a meeting that was held back on January 27. Steve, you want to read some of this?
INSKEEP: Yeah. Comey's words - here we go.
It turned out to be just the two of us seated at a small oval table in the center of the Green Room. Two Navy stewards waited on us. The president began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI director. My instincts, Comey writes, told me the dinner was at least in part an effort to have me ask for my job and create some kind of patronage relationship. 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.
MARTIN: So it's far more literary than we've heard before. But we have heard this before, these reports of this loyalty pledge, Greg. So what does this change?
MYRE: Well, it - just the level of detail and, again, this request of loyalty - something that permeates, I think, this entire testimony of Comey is a president who doesn't see the FBI director as somebody who needs separation or independence. They're picking up the phone. They're calling meetings all the time. And my takeaway is - boy, if, you know, you want somebody to double check your parachute before you jump out of the plane, James Comey is your man. This is a meticulous, detailed man. Nine meetings or interactions with Trump and he took very detailed notes every time.
MARTIN: Contemporaneous notes, Geoff, immediately following these meetings and he's able to recount all these little details - a small oval table, Navy stewards in the corner.
BENNETT: Yeah, the level of specificity and detail, I think, is meant to give an air of truth, to add some credibility to this. And it sort of refutes the talking point that we've heard from some, you know, Republican quarters that Comey is a man with an axe to grind. If that were true - I mean, he wrote these contemporaneous notes immediately after the first meeting during the transition back in January. So that is what they hold up to show the fact that, you know, this was something that he was doing outside of any sort of political end here.
MARTIN: Let's get into more of the testimony. On February 14, according to James Comey, the president wanted to talk about his former national security adviser Mike Flynn.
INSKEEP: Yeah, Comey describes being in a meeting with the president and the president clears the room. He shoos out everybody, all these top people - even tells Jared Kushner, who's the last to leave, get on out of here, kindly, because I want to be alone with Comey. And then Comey writes the following, (reading) 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. And of course, we're talking about the former...
MARTIN: National security adviser.
INSKEEP: ...National security adviser. And then the account by Comey goes on. He quotes the president as saying, quote, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He's a good guy. I hope you can let this go."
MARTIN: So then the following month, Comey described a phone call that happened between he and the president.
INSKEEP: He writes this, quote, "on the morning of March 30, the president called me at the FBI. He described the Russia investigation as a cloud that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. He said he had nothing to do with Russia and asked what we could do to lift the cloud. I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could."
MARTIN: So clearly, James Comey thought these interactions were at the very least suspect, and he was trying to keep this very close account. What conclusions are lawmakers likely to draw when they read this testimony, Geoff?
BENNETT: Well, Democrats have already been piling on. And they say that the statement alone shows a pattern of a president trying to meddle in this investigation. We'll find out today from some of the Democrats on that panel whether they draw conclusions that there was some clear obstruction of justice here.
And, you know, I think that one of the reasons why Comey is testifying publicly before the Senate intelligence committee and not the judiciary committee, which, frankly, has oversight of the FBI, is that the Senate intelligence committee is the one that is widely considered to be able to get the public the most credible - the best answers about whether or not there was any collusion here between the Trump administration and the Russian government.
MARTIN: Greg, if there's any good news in here for the president, it's that Comey backs up what he has said about not being personally under investigation. Right? That's something Republicans are trying to point to in this.
MYRE: Right. And Trump had said previously that Comey told me three times I am not under investigation, and Comey seems to back that up in this testimony, where it comes up again. Of course, the president wants Comey to say this publicly. And Comey says, this is not a good idea. We should - I've told you this. I've told congressional leaders this. I don't think it's a good idea to go public with this.
INSKEEP: Can I pick up on the idea of not a good idea? Benjamin Wittes, who is a legal analyst - also a friend of Comey, we should certainly say - has written a long analysis of this testimony. And he says he has a couple of questions. First, is it illegal for the president of the United States to ask the FBI director for information? And Wittes' opinion, his considered opinion is, no, it's not illegal. It's perfectly legal for the president to ask that but wildly, wildly inappropriate in his view. But then there's this...
MARTIN: Which is never - I mean, if the bar is just appropriateness...
INSKEEP: Yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: ...That is not something that Donald Trump adheres to.
INSKEEP: This is not normal according to a wide variety of people who have had interactions with other presidents but possibly, arguably, legal. But then there's the other question about, is there obstruction of justice in here? And that's a question that Wittes withholds judgment for the moment. But somebody is going to have to ask that question and answer it, one way or the other.
MARTIN: Which many have pointed out - obstruction of justice is hard to prove. It's a high bar to meet that standard.
Geoff Bennett, what more do the members of the Senate intelligence committee want to know from James Comey? I mean, we've got this testimony...
MARTIN: ...That lays out the details of the interactions. So we've heard about the loyalty pledge. We've heard that he's gone to Jeff Sessions and said, don't let me in a room alone with President Trump again. Those are the highlights of this testimony. What else do they care about?
BENNETT: They'll want to know about the interactions that Comey doesn't mention in this statement. It could be that they're entirely irrelevant. They'll want to know if President Trump also pressured other law enforcement chiefs or intelligence chiefs in much the same way that Comey alleges. You remember yesterday's Senate intelligence committee hearing. The folks that testified there wouldn't engage on that question.
MARTIN: Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, NSA director.
BENNETT: That's right. And there were other questions specific to what surrounded his actual firing, which this statement doesn't really speak to. So you can expect to hear some questions about that as well.
MARTIN: And Greg Myre, is this the last we're going to see of Jim Comey? This was so long-awaited, so hailed, this testimony happening today.
MYRE: Quite possibly not. I mean, you know, he could be questioned in the FBI investigation or others. We've heard the House people wanting to see Comey as well.
MARTIN: OK. Thank you so much, congressional correspondent Geoff Bennett. And Greg Myre covers national security for us. We appreciate you being here this morning.
MYRE: Thank you.
MARTIN: And since the beginning of all of this, Russia has denied interfering at all in the U.S. presidential election. Our own Mary Louise Kelly is in Moscow reporting from Russia this week, and she's on the line now.
Hi, Mary Louise.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hello, Rachel.
MARTIN: I'd say good morning in Russian, but I don't know how to.
MARTIN: So tell us - what does the story look like from over there? Anyone talking about James Comey? Does anyone even know his name (laughter)?
KELLY: It's so funny listening to you all talking about this long-awaited testimony. I feel a little bit as though I'm calling in live from another planet...
KELLY: ...Because most Russians have absolutely not heard of Jim Comey. I'm sitting here looking out my window at traffic on Tverskaya, which is one of the busiest roads in central Moscow. It's a straight shot from where I am down to Red Square to the Kremlin itself. Tverskaya, it is safe to say, will not come to a standstill today when Comey takes the witness seat. People are not hanging on his every word here...
KELLY: ...In the way that they clearly are in Washington. I mean, that said, Rachel, Russians are watching these big investigations underway. And they're not following things, of course, blow by blow by - you know, in the way that Americans are.
MARTIN: But they are aware of the bigger questions about Russian meddling.
KELLY: They are, and there's a lot of curiosity, absolutely.
MARTIN: Are you going to watch the Comey testimony from there today?
KELLY: (Laughter) I will be. I can't step away from it so lightly, so I'm going to be watching. I have enlisted a Russian professor to watch it with me and give me a little bit of his reaction to it, so I'll let you know how that goes.
MARTIN: I mean, when you just chat with people on the streets, do people say, what is the big deal about all of this?
KELLY: They do. I had lunch yesterday with a retired Russian general. And he paused at one point, put down his fork and said, have you - meaning you Americans - have you all lost your collective mind? He said there's - you know, every day it feels, as they watch things from here in Moscow, as though there is some new report about a Russian hacker, a Russian spy, the Russian ambassador.
And this general said, it's like America has decided to blame Russia for everything. And you will hear that from people across the political spectrum. I heard that from my taxi driver this morning, this bewilderment at how Washington, as they see it here in Russia, seems to be tearing itself apart and how Russia seems to be at the center of it all.
MARTIN: Mary Louise Kelly - she's reporting all this week from Russia, in Moscow this morning. Thank you so much, Mary Louise.
KELLY: You're welcome. Do svidaniya.
MARTIN: Do svidaniya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.