Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio grilled former FBI chief James Comey on Thursday over what the senator saw as a failure to tell the American public that President Donald Trump was not a target in the investigation on Russian influence in the 2016 election.
“We keep talking about this cloud, you perceive the cloud to be the Russia investigation in general, but the specific ask [from Trump] was that you would tell the American people what you had already told him, what you had already told the leaders of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, that he was not personally under investigation,” Rubio asked.
“Yes sir,” Comey replied.
Rubio, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, questioned that decision from Comey.
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“This investigation is full of leaks left and right,” Rubio said. “We’ve learned more from the newspapers sometimes than we do from our open hearings for sure. You ever wonder why in this Russia investigation the only thing that’s never been leaked is the fact that the president was not personally under investigation?”
“I don’t know, I find matters that are briefed to the Gang of Eight are pretty tightly held in my experience,” Comey said.
The Gang of Eight are Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate and each chamber's intelligence committee.
Rubio, who dined with the president earlier this week, pushed Comey hard about his conversations with Trump in which the president asked about the ongoing investigation.
“Just to be clear, for you to make a public statement that he was not under investigation would not have been illegal, but you felt it made no sense because it could potentially create a duty to correct if circumstances changed,” Rubio asked.
“I wrestled with it before my testimony where I confirmed that there was an investigation and that there were two primary concerns,” Comey said. “One was that it creates a duty to correct, which I’ve lived before and you want to be very careful about doing that, and second, it’s a slippery slope because if we say the president and the vice president aren’t under investigation, what’s the principled basis for stopping?”
Two days before the hearing, Rubio and fellow intelligence committee member Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., had dinner with President Trump and a small group of lawmakers at the White House, and Rubio has been working closely with the White House on rewriting the nation’s Cuba policy in recent weeks.
Comey’s hearing attracted widespread national attention, and early in his testimony the former FBI director said President Trump told lies about why he was fired in May.
It was previously reported that Trump was not a formal part of the Russia investigation, but Comey did not publicly confirm the reports until his testimony was released Wednesday ahead of the hearing.
Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson sat in the crowd as a spectator and leaned back in his front row chair with a smile during Rubio’s questioning.
After the hearing, Nelson and Rubio both said Attorney General Jeff Sessions should testify before the Intelligence Committee. Sessions, a former Alabama senator and Trump ally, recused himself from the Russia investigation after a flurry of criticism over his previously undisclosed contact with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
“The attorney general... will hopefully answer some questions on a number of topics,” Rubio said to reporters after the hearing.
Nelson, who is not a member of the committee, said he was stunned by what he heard on Thursday.
“Let me give you my strongest impression. The testimony was riveting and I was riveted when [Comey] answered that he took copious and detailed notes because he felt that the president would lie,” Nelson said. “That was stunning.”
Rubio said after the hearing that Trump should not have pulled Comey aside in the Oval Office to ask about backing off investigating Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who resigned in February after failing to disclose contact with Moscow’s ambassador to the United States.
“It was not a good idea to do what he did on the Oval Office on the 14th,” Rubio said. “The fundamental question is, is that the act of someone who is just really angry and upset and because he’s not a politician... and doesn’t realize or no one’s told him that presidents can’t do that, or was that an effort to, in fact, impede an investigation? That’s the determination Director [Robert] Mueller will have to make.”
Comey was a major factor in both last year’s presidential race, when he cleared Democrat Hillary Clinton of criminal wrongdoing but caused an uproar by briefly reopening the investigation days before Election Day, and in leading the investigation that has dogged the Trump White House: specifically, whether his campaign or associates colluded in a Russian election-meddling scheme.
Greg Gordon and Matthew Schofield contributed to this story