By Katie Bo Williams - 06-07-17 18:59 PM EDT
President Trump repeatedly sought to influence the FBI's investigation into Russian election meddling before firing James Comey as the bureau's director, according to blockbuster testimony that Comey is set to deliver Thursday to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Comey's riveting opening statement details multiple interactions with the president, including a January dinner at the White House where Trump said he needed and expected the FBI director's loyalty.
The one-on-one dinner, Comey felt, was an attempt to create "some sort of patronage relationship" with the president - something that "concerned me greatly, given the FBI's traditionally independent status."
Following that discussion, Trump on several occasions raised the Russia investigation with Comey in ways that unnerved him.
On Feb. 14, Trump cleared the Oval Office after a counterterrorism meeting to speak with Comey alone, according to the testimony. Trump then asked Comey to "let go" of any investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had been forced to resign the previous day for misleading Vice President Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
At the time, Comey felt the president was requesting only that he drop any investigation into Flynn related to a December phone call with the Russian ambassador - not "the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign."
During a later phone call with Trump on March 30, a conversation not previously reported, the president complained to Comey that the investigation into ties between his campaign and Russia was hampering his agenda and asked "what we could do."
Trump pressed Comey during that call to "get out" the fact that the president himself was not a target of the counterintelligence investigation, according to Comey.
The testimony backs up the president's claim that Comey had assured him on three separate occasions that he was not the target of the FBI's counterintelligence probe. Comey said he made those assurances in person on Jan. 6 and 27, and again during the March 30 phone call.
Trump touted that aspect of the testimony as vindication, as he had mentioned those assurances in his letter firing Comey.
"The president is pleased that Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the president was not under investigation in any Russia probe. The president feels completely and totally vindicated. He is eager to continue to move forward with his agenda," said Marc Kasowitz, an attorney who is representing Trump on the matter.
Still, Comey in his testimony was careful to note that "FBI counter-intelligence investigations are different than the more-commonly known criminal investigative work."
He also states that he resisted entreaties from Trump to state publicly that he was not under investigation "for a number of reasons, most importantly because it would create a duty to correct, should that change."
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last month testified that the Russia investigation - now led by special counsel Robert Mueller - had become a criminal matter.
In Comey's final conversation with Trump on April 11, according to the testimony, the president again pressed him to make it known that he was not under investigation - a request that Comey again rebuffed.
"Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know," Trump said, according to Comey.
The call, Comey states, "was the last time I spoke with President Trump."
Trump fired Comey on May 9.
While the testimony mostly confirms what has been reported since Comey's firing in May, it nonetheless paints an extraordinary picture of the president's interactions with one of the nation's top law enforcement officials.
Following his first encounter with Trump, which came during a Jan. 6 meeting at Trump Tower, Comey said he felt "compelled" to document the meeting, typing out a memo on a laptop in an FBI vehicle "the moment I walked out of the meeting."
Comey acknowledged that he did not take such notes about his meetings with former President Barack Obama, though he said he only met alone with him twice, compared with "nine one-on-one conversations" with Trump in four months.
Democrats have described Trump's actions as potential obstruction of justice, prompting some on Wednesday to call for his impeachment.
But Republicans are certain to challenge Comey on several aspects of his testimony, including on the question of why the FBI director did not speak out before his firing if he felt Trump was improperly pressuring him.
Comey's statement provides some details about his attempts to alert officials to what he saw as "concerning" interactions with the president.
Following the Feb. 14 encounter in which Trump asked him to "let go" of the Flynn matter, Comey says he "implored" Attorney General Jeff Sessions to prevent any future direct communication between himself and the president, though he did not tell Sessions about the substance of the Oval Office meeting.
Later, following the March 30 phone call - when Trump asked him what he could do to "lift the cloud" - Comey called acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente.
He did not hear back from Boente before Trump called him, on April 11, to again press him on "the cloud."
Still, Comey's opening statement mostly sticks to the details of his interactions with Trump, offering at times cinematic detail.
The most dramatic was the January dinner, which Comey said was "just the two of us, seated at a small oval table in the center of the Green Room."
"My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship."
After a few moments, the president told him he expected loyalty. An awkward silence ensued, according to Comey.
"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."
The president raised the issue again at the end of the dinner and, ultimately, Comey allowed that Trump would get "honest loyalty" from him.
"It is possible we understood the phrase 'honest loyalty' differently, but I decided it wouldn't be productive to push it further," Comey stated. He believed that the term "helped end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he should expect."
Comey will also testify that Trump told him that he was considering ordering the director to investigate allegations in a dossier that is believed to be drawn, to some extent, from unverified and likely erroneous information circulated by Russian intelligence.
The president reportedly told Comey during the March 30 call that he had not been involved with "hookers" in Russia, which is one of the claims contained in the dossier, and that he "had always assumed he was being recorded" when visiting the country.
While Trump wanted to know if any of his "satellite" associates were implicated in wrongdoing, the president insisted that he himself "hadn't done anything wrong."