Comey’s devastating indictment of President Donald Trump

He presented himself as anything but a fearsome G-man. He wondered what he might have done differently “if I were stronger.” He confessed that he had hustled his adversary off the phone in “kind of a slightly cowardly way” to avoid refusing his demands. He was “worried very much” about being in the mold of his most infamous predecessor, J. Edgar Hoover, by seeming to hold his superior hostage over salacious allegations about his sex life.

But in more than two hours of steady, soft-spoken Senate testimony, former FBI Director James Comey nevertheless delivered a quietly devastating indictment of President Donald Trump, confiding that he had kept contemporaneous notes of their every conversation for one overriding and unflinching reason: “I was honestly concerned that he might lie.”

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Comey’s testimony may or may not go down in the annals of great Washington scandals. His Republican interlocutors on the Senate Intelligence Committee succeeded in eliciting his repeated confirmation that, so far as he knew, Trump has never been personally under FBI investigation for possible collusion with the Russians — or anything else, for that matter. Further, Comey repeatedly conceded that neither Trump’s efforts to get him to confirm that fact publicly, nor the president’s single request to back off investigating the Russia-related activities of the fired national security adviser Michael Flynn, had ever impeded the ongoing inquiry that is now in the hands of special counsel Robert Mueller.

But Comey’s appearance Thursday will certainly rank with the great self-deprecating performances of past witnesses like Col. Oliver North in the Iran-Contra scandal, or Sen. Sam Ervin, the chairman of the Watergate select committee, who liked to insist that he was “just a country lawyer.” In his own telling, Comey was just an ordinary guy doing his job in extraordinary circumstances, a bona fide Eagle Scout who, gosh darn it, is far too modest to say so out loud.

“My mother raised me not to say things like this about myself, so I’m not gonna,” Comey said when Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mex.) asked him whether he wanted to say anything about why people should believe him and not the president. Similarly, Comey said he would have to leave it to others to say whether the president had obstructed justice.

Yet the damage was already done. Comey had not finished testifying before the deputy White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was moved to insist, “I can definitively say the president is not a liar. I think it’s frankly insulting.” Such protestations from any White House are never a good thing. (See Richard Nixon’s, “I am not a crook,” and Bill Clinton’s, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,” just for starters).

In fact, Comey’s testimony repeatedly and emphatically contradicted Trump’s account of events on multiple points: It was Trump, he said, not himself who asked to have a dinner on Jan. 27 (he had to break a date with his wife to do so), at which the president then demanded Comey’s “loyalty.” Contrary to Trump’s public insistence that he never asked Comey to back off the Flynn investigation, Comey testified that on Valentine’s Day the president cleared the Oval Office of the attorney general and other officials and then did just that.

At one point, Senator James Lankford of (R-Okla.) told Comey that he found Trump’s request about Flynn – “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go” – to be “a pretty light touch” from someone who might be trying to block an investigation. But neither Lankford nor any of his other Republican colleagues questioned the veracity or specificity of Comey’s essential account – something that the low-key, Joe Friday tenor of the former director’s testimony would have made all the tougher to do in any case.

For all his insistence that he had been “stunned” by Trump’s request to curtail the Flynn inquiry, Comey made it clear that he had never been too stunned to deploy the tactics of a skilled Washington infighter. When the president tweeted that he might have tapes of the conversations, Comey testified that he awoke in the middle of the night and thought, “Holy cow, there might be tapes.” That impelled him to leak his own memos (which he had deliberately written with unclassified status, so they could be shared easily within the FBI) to the press through a friend, in the explicit hope that they might prompt the appointment of a special prosecutor.

“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” he told Senator Dianne Feinstien (D-Cal.) at one point.

And in a subtle window into the investigator’s art, Comey suggested that he had refrained from sharing what he considered to be the president’s improper requests with agents working on the Russia case not only to avoid infecting their inquiry, but because he believed the president’s request was “a very disturbing development, really important to our work.” That implies that Comey feared the president’s own words and actions might eventually become the subject of official inquiry – as they presumably now have.

Comey’s humble demeanor did not keep him from defending his honor, as he hotly did at the outset of his testimony, when he confessed to confusion and ultimately outrage at the Trump administration’s shifting explanations for his firing. “Although the law required no reason at all to fire an FBI director,” he said, “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.”

But for the most part, Comey portrayed himself as less a threatening Torquemada than a shocked straight arrow, struggling to cope with a president whose behavior and demeanor had unnerved and confounded him from their first meeting.

When Senator Susan Collins (R-Me.) asked Comey to confirm that he had told Trump at their first meeting on Jan. 6 at Trump Tower that he was not the subject of any “counterintelligence investigation” into Russian meddling, Comey took some pains to say that the context was more specific. He had just briefed Trump on the contents of an unverified dossier alleging that the Russians had compromising evidence about Trump’s personal behavior.

“I was briefing him about salacious and unverified material,” Comey said. “It was in a context of that that he had a strong and defensive reaction about that not being true. My reading of it was it was important for me to assure him we were not personally investigating him.” He added, “It was very important because it was, first, true, and second, I was worried very much of being in kind of a –kind of J. Edgar Hoover-type situation. I didn’t want him thinking I was briefing him on this to sort of hang it over him in some way.

Hoover, who ran the FBI for just shy of 48 years, was well known for keeping secret files which he used to intimidate a range of politicians and public figures.

At another point, Feinstein wanted to know why Comey had not rejected Trump’s request about Flynn out of hand.

“Now, here’s the question,” she said. “You’re big, you’re strong. I know the Oval Office and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn’t you stop and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you.”

“It’s a great question,” Comey replied. “Maybe if I were stronger, I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took in.”

When Feinstein asked Comey why he had told Trump in a March 30 phone conversation that he would see what he could do about getting the word out that Trump was not personally under investigation, Comey again suggested his response had been nothing to brag about.

“It was kind of a cowardly way of trying to avoid telling him, we’re not going to do that,” he said. “That I would see what we could do. It was a way of kind of getting off the phone, frankly, and then I turned and handed it to the acting deputy attorney general.”

Comey made it clear that he was still smarting from the firestorm of criticism that greeted his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server last year, acknowledging that “it caused a whole lot of personal pain for me.” But he insisted that, even knowing all he knows now, he would not have handled the matter differently. He acknowledged that Clinton herself might have fired him if she had won.

In an answer to Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), about whether Trump had ever expressed serious concern about the underlying issue at hand – the deliberating Russian interference in last year’s election – Comey turned passionate, displaying more emotion than in any other response.

“The reason this is such a big deal,” he said. “We have this big messy wonderful country where we fight with each other all the time. But nobody tells us what to think, what to fight about, what to vote for except other Americans. And that’s wonderful and often painful. But we’re talking about a foreign government that using technical intrusion, lots of other methods tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is a big deal. And people need to recognize it. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America, which I hope we all love equally.”

For at least a fleeting moment, that seemed to be a statement on which all members of the committee might agree.

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Jerry Falwell Jr.’s task force isn’t happening

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell and President Donald Trump are pictured. | Getty

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. was an early endorser of Donald Trump. | Getty

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. will not be leading a higher education task force for President Donald Trump after all, multiple sources tell POLITICO.

Falwell had announced in late January that Trump tapped him to lead an effort to roll back higher education regulations. But as of now, there is no such task force and no plan to launch one, the sources said.

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Falwell — an early endorser of the New York billionaire who also claimed Trump had asked him to be Education secretary before extending the offer to Betsy DeVos — told The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year that the president wanted him to lead a group that would tackle “overreaching regulation” and micromanagement of universities by the department.

“There’s too much intrusion into the operation of universities and colleges. I’ve got a whole list of concerns. It mainly has to do with deregulation,” Falwell later told The Washington Post.

At the time, Falwell said White House chief strategist Steve Bannon had given him the green light to talk about the gig, even though all the details hadn’t been hashed out. He called it “very preliminary.” But no one in the administration ever publicly discussed the idea. Falwell stopped talking about it, including not responding to questions from POLITICO. He did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

It appears that at least some of the work that Falwell was set to undertake will be handled within the department. In response to a request for information about the task force from Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), acting Undersecretary of Education James Manning avoided any mention of Falwell.

Manning wrote in the response, obtained by POLITICO, that Trump’s executive orders calling for agencies to “reduce regulatory burden” would be “carried out through a collaborative effort by both political and career staff.” He did not name the Liberty president.

Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill declined to comment on the task force. A White House spokesperson said the administration has no announcements or updates on a higher education task force at this time.

Caitlin Emma and Michael Stratford contributed to this report.

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Rep. Trey Gowdy wins Oversight gavel

Rep. Trey GowdyTrey GowdyRep. Trey Gowdy wins Oversight gavel This week: Comey breaks his silence Top Dem: Nunes violating Russia recusal with subpoenas MORE (R-S.C.) was chosen Thursday as the next chairman of the House Oversight Committee. 

Gowdy never officially announced a bid for the post, but he was considered a lock to get it ahead of the House GOP Steering Committee’s meeting Thursday, where the decision was made.  

“I am grateful to the Steering Committee and the Conference as a whole for this opportunity to serve,” Gowdy said in a statement.

“I look forward to working alongside the other Committee members, as well as any member of Congress, as we discharge the jurisdiction assigned to us.” 

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The former prosecutor is best known for his role leading the House select committee that investigated the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The Benghazi panel played a major role in helping uncover that Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonPelosi: Comey’s disclosures on Loretta Lynch ‘not such a big deal’ Romney: Clinton encouraged me to consider being Trump’s secretary of State Trump, Meryl Streep share screen time in HBO film MORE used a private email server while secretary of State. Gowdy led the panel for nearly two years until it closed down in late 2016. 

Gowdy will now be tasked with oversight of the Trump administration, a position that could at times put him at odds with a president from his own party. 

The outgoing Oversight chairman, Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzRep. Trey Gowdy wins Oversight gavel Sessions rejects request to testify before Oversight on Fast and Furious Rand Paul: All leakers must be found MORE (R-Utah), had already at times found himself investigating President Trump. He has looked into former White House national security adviser’s Michael Flynn’s paid speech in Russia and whether Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway violated ethics rules by promoting Ivanka Trump’s clothing line. 

Chaffetz also asked the FBI for copies of former Director James Comey’s memos detailing interactions with Trump. So far, the FBI has not provided the Oversight Committee with the documents. 

Chaffetz is resigning from Congress at the end of June. Had he chosen to stay, he could have kept the Oversight gavel through 2020 under the House GOP’s rules limiting chairmen to three consecutive terms.

The House GOP conference is expected to ratify the Steering Committee’s selection as soon as Tuesday. At that point, Gowdy would immediately take over as Oversight Committee chairman. 

Gowdy’s takeover of the House Oversight Committee marks a swift rise in Congress since first winning election in 2010 in the Tea Party wave. 

He’ll become chairman of one of the most powerful committees in Congress despite being only eighth in seniority on the panel. 

Gowdy is leap-frogging multiple members of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative hard-liners who have repeatedly clashed with GOP leaders. 

Many Freedom Caucus members favored Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who’s third in seniority. But Jordan himself acknowledged that his past tenure leading the Freedom Caucus made it unlikely that he’d secure enough support on the GOP leadership-controlled Steering Committee to win the Oversight gavel.

Only one other Oversight Committee member announced a bid to succeed Chaffetz: Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.). But Russell was considered a long shot, especially given that he is 18th in seniority on the committee. 

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McCain: I shouldn’t stay up so late watching baseball

Sen. John McCain is pictured.

“I get the sense from Twitter that my line of questioning today went over people’s heads,” Sen. John McCain said in a statement Thursday afternoon. | AP Photo

Sen. John McCain had a quick explanation for why his line of questioning at fired FBI Director James Comey’s hearing on Thursday didn’t make much sense to some people — he was up late watching baseball.

Observers reacted to the awkward back-and-forth between McCain and Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee with confusion and in some cases concern. McCain asked Comey about what he described as a “double standard” between the FBI’s treatment of investigations into Hillary Clinton and Trump’s campaign, but he appeared flustered at various points, and it was unclear what his point was.

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“I get the sense from Twitter that my line of questioning today went over people’s heads,” McCain said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “Maybe going forward I shouldn’t stay up late watching the Diamondbacks night games.”

“What I was trying to get at was whether Mr. Comey believes that any of his interactions with the President rise to the level of obstruction of justice,” he continued. “In the case of Secretary Clinton’s emails, Mr. Comey was willing to step beyond his role as an investigator and state his belief about what ‘no reasonable prosecutor’ would conclude about the evidence. I wanted Mr. Comey to apply the same approach to the key question surrounding his interactions with President Trump—whether or not the President’s conduct constitutes obstruction of justice.”

Comey declined to offer such an assessment during the hearing, saying that it was not his place to make such a judgment.

“While I missed an opportunity in today’s hearing, I still believe this question is important, and I intend to submit it in writing to Mr. Comey for the record,” McCain concluded.

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Gowdy picked by GOP steering committee to chair House Oversight panel

Rep. Trey Gowdy is pictured.

Rep. Trey Gowdy would replace outgoing Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, who will resign at the end of June. | AP Photo

Updated

The Republican Steering Committee on Thursday backed Rep. Trey Gowdy to become the next chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The move — if confirmed by the full GOP Conference — would put the South Carolina Republican at the helm of a contentious probe into President Donald Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor, is known for chairing the House Benghazi investigation and has also been a leading member of the Intelligence Committee’s probe of Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election.

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Gowdy would replace outgoing Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who will resign at the end of June.

House GOP leaders encouraged Gowdy to run upon learning of Chaffetz’s looming departure. He is a close ally of Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on a panel comprised of unpredictable Freedom Caucus conservatives with rocky relationships with leadership.

Gowdy has also clashed with Trump, although he later served on Trump’s transition team. Trump once re-tweeted someone calling Rep. Trey Gowdy a “Benghazi loser” after Gowdy backed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the GOP presidential primary. Trump also accused Gowdy of being soft on Hillary Clinton over her use of an unauthorized email server.

It is unclear which direction Gowdy will take his part of the Trump-Comey investigation, which has quickly become one of the most contentious political scandals in modern American history. While the House and Senate intelligence committees have jurisdiction over Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election, questions of obstruction and how Trump may have tried to influence the probe fall more into Oversight’s purview, at least in the House.

Democrats worry that Gowdy will use the gavel to protect the White House or focus the investigation solely on leaks to the media that make Trump look bad. Democrats’ distrust of Gowdy stretches back to his work on the Benghazi probe, which they believe was a witch hunt against Hillary Clinton.

Republicans praise Gowdy as a top-notch and independent investigator, and at least one White House aide has worried that he could become a thorn in Trump’s side.

POLITICO reported that Gowdy has made a conscious effort to shield himself from an appearance of being too closely tied to the White House: When the Trump-supporting Great America PAC donated $5,000 into Gowdy’s campaign account in March, he returned the donation.

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