WASHINGTON • Former FBI director James Comey blasted the Trump administration for bad- mouthing the bureau and his leadership to justify his firing, saying "those were lies, plain and simple'' - a stark challenge to the US President's rationale for his ouster.
A former federal prosecutor, Mr Comey said he took detailed notes of his private talks with President Donald Trump, a departure from his practice with Mr Trump's predecessor Barack Obama.
Mr Comey said he did so because he wanted to make a clear record of what was said. He said he took copious notes because he was "honestly concerned" that the President might lie about what had been said in their meeting. He kept doing so for future conversations, and the two spoke privately a total of nine times before he was fired, he said.
Mr Comey sat grim-faced before the Senate Intelligence Committee as the committee chairman, Republican Senator Richard Burr, began the hearing by calling for a "very open and candid discussion" about the "strained relationship" between Mr Trump and Mr Comey.
Mr Comey's written account of those discussions, made public on Wednesday, have fuelled the debate over whether Mr Trump may have attempted to obstruct justice by pressuring the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director about a sensitive investigation.
"This is not a witchhunt, this is not fake news," said the senior Democrat on the panel, Senator Mark Warner. "This is an effort to protect our country from a new threat that quite frankly will not go away any time soon."
Mr Comey began his testimony by saying he became "confused and increasingly concerned" over the public explanations by White House officials for his firing on May 9, particularly after Mr Trump said he was thinking about the Russia investigation when he decided to fire him.
He wasted little time repudiating White House statements that he was fired in part because of low morale among FBI staff, and those employees' supposedly soured attitude towards his leadership.
"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," he said. "Those were lies, plain and simple, and I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them, and I am so sorry the American people were told them."
Detailing private talks with a sitting president - which under normal circumstances would never see the light of day - Mr Comey described pressure from the commander-in-chief that he found "very disturbing" and "very concerning".
For much of yesterday, Mr Comey was expected to provide details about a probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, an investigation that has ensnared close aides of the President and has vast- ranging political and geopolitical implications.
Mr Warner said: "We are here because a foreign adversary attacked us right here at home. Plain and simple. Not by guns or missiles, but by foreign operatives seeking to hijack our most important democratic process - our presidential election."
In a written statement to the committee, Mr Comey described his mounting discomfort in the weeks leading up to his dismissal as Mr Trump pulled him aside in one-on- one encounters and in phone calls to press him on the probe into Trump campaign associates and possible collusion with a Russian effort to tilt the 2016 vote in the Republican's favour.
At a private White House dinner on Jan 27, just days after the billionaire took office, Mr Comey said Mr 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," Mr Comey said.
In an Oval Office tete-a-tete the following month, he said Mr Trump pressed him to drop the FBI investigation into National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired for lying to the Vice-President about his unreported conversations with the Russian ambassador.
Mr Comey said it was not for him to decide whether the President's actions amounted to obstruction of justice, a serious crime that could lead to impeachment. But he called Mr Trump's approaches "a very disturbing thing, very concerning".
He also described trying to insulate himself and the FBI from political pressure in the weeks before Mr Trump fired him, as the President complained about the Russian probe and labelled it "fake news".
Networks and cable news stations provided blanket coverage of the hearing, and a number of bars in Washington were opening early, with TVs tuned to live broadcasts of yesterday's hearing - one of them offering free drinks every time Mr Trump tweets about Mr Comey.
On site, more than 300 people were lined up for the hearing in a room with 88 public seats. "It is a piece of history and I wanted to be here for it," said one young House staff member who asked not to be named.
WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE