Washington: US President Donald Trump went on the attack Friday after ousted FBI Director James Comey’s dramatic Capitol Hill testimony, claiming “complete vindication” and slamming him for leaking documents about their private conversations.
In his first response to Comey’s blunt remarks, Trump offered a window into how the White House may try to contain the controversy that has dogged his administration for months — accusations that his campaign team colluded with Moscow to tilt the 2016 election in his favour.
The Republican leader zeroed in on Comey’s confirmation that he personally was not under investigation over his ties to Russia.
But he left aside scathing testimony by Comey, who was fired in early May, that Trump had tried to derail a probe into his onetime national security advisor — at best, a political miscalculation by a tradition-shredding president, and at worst, a criminal obstruction of justice.
“Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication… and WOW, Comey is a leaker!” Trump said.
During almost three hours of frank statements before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, Comey described himself as “stunned” by Trump’s “very disturbing” and “very concerning” behaviour in several meetings.
Detailing one-on-one talks with a sitting president — which under normal circumstances are private — Comey said he took painstaking notes for fear Trump might “lie” about the unusual encounters.
Painting a devastating picture of an untrustworthy president, Comey admitted he asked a friend to leak those notes to a reporter, betting — correctly — that the details would prompt the appointment of a special prosecutor.
A person close to Trump’s legal team said a complaint would be filed next week with the Justice Department over the leak.
Pundits and legal experts were divided on whether Trump’s actions rose to the level of obstruction of justice, a potentially impeachable offence, while Comey said that decision was now in the hands of the special prosecutor, former FBI chief Robert Mueller.
Trump was scheduled to face the media later Friday at a joint press conference with the visiting president of Romania.
During one White House dinner, Comey recalled that the president asked him for “loyalty” and to lay off his former top aide Michael Flynn — who is under investigation over his Russia ties — imploring Comey to “let this go.”
Comey said he believed he was sacked over his handling of the Russia probe.
“I was fired in some way to change, or the endeavour was to change, the way the Russia investigation was being conducted. That is a very big deal,” Comey told senators.
On Thursday, Trump let his communications team — and his personal lawyer — reply to Comey’s unflattering portrayals.
“I can definitely say the president is not a liar and frankly am insulted by that question,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
Trump’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz said the president “never told Mr Comey ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty’ in form or substance,” rejecting a key allegation made by the former FBI director.
Kasowitz also suggested Comey should be prosecuted for leaking “privileged information.”
‘Lies, plain and simple’
A visibly aggrieved Comey kicked off his testimony with a bid to set the record straight about the state of the bureau he led until he was sacked last month.
“Although the law requires 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 organisation was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader,” he charged.
“Those were lies, plain and simple,” Comey said, firing a shot of tension through the hearing room, which stood silent except for the shutter clicks of photographers capturing the political theatre.
Trump abruptly fired Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on May 9, admitting later that the Russia probe was on his mind at the time.
Ahead of the hearing, Comey described his mounting discomfort in the weeks leading up to his dismissal as Trump pulled him aside in person and phoned to press him on the investigation.
‘A big deal’
At a private White House dinner on January 27, just days after the billionaire took office, Comey said Trump appeared to want to “create some sort of patronage relationship” with him.
“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,” Comey said.
In an Oval Office tete-a-tete the following month, Comey said Trump pressed him to drop the FBI investigation into Flynn, who had been fired for lying to the vice president about unreported conversations with the Russian ambassador.
Harvard Law School professor Mark Tushnet said onlookers should keep in mind that Comey knows much more than he can say, calling his testimony a “big deal.”
But Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan appeared to sympathise with Trump.
“He probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between (Department of Justice), FBI and White Houses. He’s just new to this,” he told a press conference.
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