June 8 (UPI) -- In a highly anticipated appearance Thursday in the U.S. Senate, former FBI Director James Comey said he was "disturbed" by a discussion he had with President Donald Trump about the Russia investigation -- and believes he was fired to "relieve" pressure from it.
Comey gave his remarks Thursday before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He faced questioning about his firing, the investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election and various encounters he'd had with Trump -- including the Feb. 14 meet at which Comey said the president wanted former national security adviser Michael Flynn to be "let go" by Justice Department investigators.
Although he said he believes Trump was asking him to stop investigating Flynn, Comey said the president had never explicitly asked him to stop the Russia investigation.
"Did the president at any time ask you to stop the FBI investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. Elections?" panel chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., asked.
"Not to my understanding, no," Comey answered.
"When the president requested that you, 'let Flynn go,' ... In your estimation, was Gen. Flynn at that time in serious legal jeopardy, and in addition to that, do you sense that the president was trying to obstruct justice or just seek for a way for Mike Flynn to save face?" Burr continued.
"Gen. Flynn at that point in time was in legal jeopardy. There was an open FBI criminal investigation of his statements in connection with the Russian contacts ... so that was my assessment at the time," Comey replied. "I don't think it's for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct. I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning, but that's a conclusion I'm sure the special counsel will work towards to try and understand what the intention was there, and whether that's an offense."
Comey did make clear, though, that he believed Trump was asking him to clear Flynn in the case.
"This is a president of the United States with me alone saying I hope this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do," he said. "I didn't obey that, but that's the way I took it."
Comey also said he knew at the Feb. 14 meeting -- once Attorney General Jeff Sessions was asked to leave the room -- that he needed to remember the president's message for posterity.
"My impression was something big is about to happen," he said, noting that he prepared mentally to write a memo on the discussion. "I need to remember every single word that is spoken. ... I knew something was about to happen that I needed to pay very close attention to."
"I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took in," he added later in the hearing. "I've seen the tweet about [possible existence of tapes of the conversation]. Lordy, I hope there are tapes."
Comey told the panel that it would be inappropriate for him to say what the legal ramifications might be for Trump's words at the meeting. The president has said he never asked Comey to shut down the investigation.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the panel's vice chairman, asked Comey about another of Trump's statements -- that he himself was not being personally investigated. Comey replied that, technically, that had been correct.
"There was not a counter-intelligence investigation of Mr. Trump, and I decided in the moment to say it, given the nature of our conversation," he said.
Comey added, however, that some in the FBI's leadership worried that making that statement might be counter-intuitive or misleading given the possibility that evidence could still shift the investigation's focus in Trump's direction.
"The nature of the investigation was such that it might touch, obviously it would touch, the campaign, and the person that headed the campaign would be the candidate," Comey said.
Following the former FBI chief's testimony Thursday, Trump attorney Marc Kasowitz seized on that part of the hearing by saying that the president's prior statements had been validated.
"Mr. Comey has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told the president privately -- the president was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference," Kasowitz said. "He also admitted that there is no evidence that a single vote changed as a result of any Russian interference.
"It is overwhelmingly clear that there have been and continue to be those in government who are actively attempting to undermine this administration with selective and illegal leaks of classified information and privileged communications."
Kasowitz also said Trump never demanded loyalty from Comey, a claim the former FBI director had reemphasized in his remarks Thursday.
"The dinner [in January] was an effort to build a relationship. In fact, he asked specifically of loyalty in the context of asking me to stay," Comey said. "My common sense told me, what's going on here is he's looking to get something in exchange for granting my request to stay in the job."
Comey said he was uneasy about the loyalty remarks because the FBI director serves at 10-year terms specifically to avoid parallel terms with U.S. presidents, an effort to avoid the appearance of politicization.
"The statue of justice has a blindfolds on. You're not supposed to peek out to see there if your patron was pleased with what you're doing," Comey said.
The former FBI director said in his opening statement, which differed from written remarks he submitted to the committee this week, that his firing on May 9 took him completely by surprise.
"I understood that I could be fired by a president for any reason or for no reason at all," he said. "But then the explanations, the shifting explanations, confused me and increasingly concerned me."
Trump initially said he fired Comey following "clear" advice from Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, who cited the director's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation as a reason he should be dismissed.
Comey said another reason for his confusion was that Trump had previously assured him he was serving well as director of the FBI.
"The president and I'd had multiple conversations about my job, both before and after he took office, and he had repeatedly told me I was doing a great job and he hoped I would stay," Comey said. "He told me repeatedly that he'd talked to lots of people about me, including [Sessions], and had learned that I was doing a great job and that I was extremely well-liked by the FBI workforce.
"So it confused me when I saw on television the president saying that he actually fired me because of the Russia investigation. [I] learned again from the media that he was telling privately other parties that my firing had relieved great pressure on the Russia investigation."
"Why do you believe you were fired?" Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked.
"I guess I don't know for sure," Comey answered. "I believe ... that I was fired because of the Russia investigation. Something about the way I was conducting it, the president felt created pressure on him that he wanted to relieve."
"You believe the Russia investigation played a role?" Feinstein repeated.
"Yes," Comey replied. "I've seen the president say so."