Sen. Susan Collins asked Comey how his memos describing meetings with President Trump came to be leaked to the press. Comey said he shared them.

Former FBI director James Comey made his much-anticipated appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, testifying about his interactions with President Trump and responding to a battery of questions, including from Maine’s senators.

In the public session of the daylong hearing – which had official Washington and millions of television viewers across the country transfixed for much of the morning – Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King asked separate lines of questions of Comey, who was heading an investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign when the president fired him on May 9.

Collins, a Republican, spent half the seven minutes each senator was allotted asking a series of clarifying questions that established that the president had not personally been the target of any sort of FBI investigation – criminal, counter-intelligence, or otherwise – at any time during Comey’s tenure.

She also asked Comey – who had been uncomfortable being asked to attend private, one-on-one meetings with the president – if he had gone “to anyone at the Department of Justice and ask them to call the White House counsel’s office and explain that the president had to have a far better understanding and appreciation of his role vis-a-vis the FBI.”

Comey said he had spoken to his superiors at the Justice Department, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to whom he said, “It can’t happen that you get kicked out of the (Oval Office) while the president talks to me,” as he testified happened on Feb. 14.

Collins, who championed Sessions’ confirmation as attorney general, then asked whether, in that conversation, he had shared with Sessions the content of the meeting with Trump: that Trump had asked him to “let go” of his agency’s probe of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who is accused of lying to Vice President Michael Pence about Flynn’s contacts with Russian officials.

“No,” Comey said. “I specifically did not.”

‘RID ME OF THIS MEDDLESOME PRIEST’

King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats and is an attorney by training, sought to establish that Comey believed that Trump, in that private Oval Office meeting, was ordering him to drop the FBI’s probe.

“Yes,” Comey responded in a memorable exchange. “It rings in my ear as ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest,'” a reference to the famous line by King Henry II of England in the 12th century about an adversary, Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The king’s subordinates acted on the remark as an order to assassinate the cleric.

Maine Sen. Angus King questions James Comey during Thursday’s hearing.

King looked surprised. “I was going to quote that,” he exclaimed, before explaining the reference to the hearing’s audience. “That’s exactly the same situation. We’re thinking along the same lines.”

King opened with a question and remarks amplifying his concerns about Russia’s interference with U.S. elections generally, an issue he’s raised regularly with reporters. “Was the Russian activity in the 2016 election a one-off proposition, or is this part of a long-term strategy?” he asked Comey. “Will they be back?”

“Oh, it’s a long-term practice of theirs,” the former FBI director responded. “It’s stepped up a notch in a significant way in ’16. They’ll be back.” Comey later added: “They’re going to come for whatever party they choose to try to work on behalf of, and they’re not devoted to either, in my experience. They’re just about their own advantage.”

King agreed. “That’s my observation,” he said. “I don’t think Putin is a Republican or a Democrat. He’s an opportunist.”

‘OUR DEMOCRACY WAS ATTACKED’

King pointed to this exchange when asked by the Portland Press Herald what he thought was the most consequential development to come out of the testimony. “As I said at the beginning, we have to keep our eye on the fact that our democracy was attacked by Russia and that they are going to do it again,” he said, adding that it was essential that the federal government help states ensure all voting machines have verifiable paper backups and that voting rolls and other electoral devices are kept quarantined from the internet to ensure they are not hacked in future.

“Imagine, if you will, if the Russians had been able to mess up the vote tally in Michigan or Wisconsin or Florida or one of these close sates,” King said in a Thursday evening call with the media. “We would have been in a real constitutional crisis.”

King also told Maine reporters that he intended to leave the decision as to whether the president’s actions amounted to obstruction of justice to the FBI’s special counsel, Robert Mueller, who is now heading the investigation Comey had overseen.

During the hearing, King also asked Comey if the fact that there was no investigation targeting Trump meant that no one at the FBI was investigating the accusations made in the so-called Steele Dossier, a document prepared by a British private investigator and leaked to the media that claimed Russia had salacious and compromising material on Trump from his business trips to Moscow.

Comey said couldn’t discuss it in open session.

‘STUNNED’ BY COMEY’S ADMISSION OF LEAK

Collins elicited an interesting detail when she asked how Comey’s memos describing his meetings with Trump came to be leaked to the media. “Did you show copies of your memos to anyone outside the Department of Justice?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Comey, who went on to say that he decided to share them after the president’s May 12 tweet that “Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

“I woke up in the middle of the night (of May 15) because it didn’t dawn on me originally that there might be corroboration for our conversation, there might be a tape,” Comey said. “And my judgment was, I needed to get that out into the public square, so I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter.”

Speaking on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press Daily” Thursday evening, Collins said she was “stunned by the revelation” and that she did not think it was appropriate for Comey to have leaked the document. “The irony is that the director of the FBI has always been very annoyed when there are leaks,” she said. “And then it turns out that he leaked a document himself.”

Collins did not respond to an interview request.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat representing Maine’s 1st District, expressed deep concern over what had been revealed in the hearing, and her hope that FBI and congressional investigators followed every thread to the end.

“For those of us who lived through Watergate, James Comey’s testimony harkens back to a terrifying time in American history when a paranoid president shook the public’s confidence in the institutions which uphold our democracy,” she said in a written statement. “It’s incredibly unsettling for Americans to hear the former director of the FBI say the Trump White House lied to the public and that his sudden firing was the direct result of the FBI’s ongoing Russia investigation.”

Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, issued a one-sentence statement: “The matters discussed in today’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing raise concerns.”

Colin Woodard can be contacted at:

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