A day after James Comey accused President Trump of lying and seeking to impede the Russia investigation, the president and his associates turned their rhetorical fire Friday on the ex-FBI director over his testimony and leaks to the press.
Trump himself tweeted an attack on Comey — accusing him of "false statements" and improper leaking to the press — while his attorney planned to file a complaint with the Justice Department about how Comey's disclosures about private talks with the president reached the news media.
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers and other critics say Comey's clams that Trump leaned on him to somehow drop the Russia investigation could amount to an obstruction of justice.
"I think he abused power," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "Whether he obstructed justice remains for the facts to come forward."
His tweet aside, Trump did not mention the Russia probe during an infrastructure speech Friday at the U.S. Transportation Department, but did say he wants people in public service to “rise above the petty partisan squabbling that plagues our nation" and focus on fixing problems.
Comey’s high-profile testimony also has turned part of the spotlight on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is expected to be questioned about Russia next week when he appears before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.
Recounting a Feb. 14 White House meeting where Trump pressed the director to drop the FBI’s inquiry into national security adviser Michael Flynn, Comey said a decision was made not to report the incident to Sessions. At the time, Comey said, the attorney general was weighing his recusal from all matters related to the Russia investigation — largely for his failure to acknowledge two previous meetings with the Russian ambassador during his January confirmation hearing — and for other “facts’’ the former director said he could not disclose in a public session.
“We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make (Sessions’) continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic,’’ Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday.
Sessions indeed recused himself from the Russia investigation weeks later. The facts that Comey declined to disclose appears to refer to an ongoing inquiry over whether Sessions failed to disclose a third meeting with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, during a April campaign event for then-presidential candidate Trump.
Last week, Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Al Franken of Minnesota acknowledged that they had pressed the FBI on three separate occasions last year to look into a possible third meeting involving Sessions and Kislyak.
The Justice Department has denied that a third meeting occurred.
“I have sought for months to clarify Attorney General Sessions’ contacts with Russian officials following his false testimony in response to questions from me and from Sen. Franken,'' Leahy said following Comey's Thursday Senate testimony. "We wrote to the FBI requesting that they investigate such matters. I am also deeply concerned about the Attorney General’s role in firing Director Comey in light of his recusal from the Russia investigation.''
After staying off Twitter during Comey's testimony on Thursday, Trump began Friday with a sharp critique of the man he fired last month.
"Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication...and WOW, Comey is a leaker!" Trump tweeted.
In his testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey said he believes Trump fired him over the Russia probe, and he accused the White House of lying about the details of the dismissal. He also admitted that he had leaked to the press memos describing his talks with Trump, saying he hoped the stories would spur the appoint of a special counsel to take over the investigation of the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia, which is what happened.
Comey said he leaked information partly in response to a Trump tweet in which the president appeared to threaten him and suggested there might be tapes of their conversations. While Comey said he would welcome the release of tapes, Trump and aides refuse to say whether such tapes exist.
The former FBI director also appeared to confirm Trump's statements that, on three occasions, Comey told the president he was not personally under investigation with regard to Russia.
Trump and aides referenced those comments in claiming vindication, but some officials said Comey's statements that Trump leaned on him to drop the Russia investigation could add up to obstruction of justice.
As for Trump's tweet attack on Comey, Pelosi said no one at the White House appears to be "brave enough" to tell the president that his tweets are "beneath the dignity of the office you serve."
She added: "The president's fitness for office is something that has been called into question ... I'm very worried about his fitness."
The former FBI director testified that he kept notes on his meetings with the president because he was concerned Trump might lie about the nature of their conversations. These were the notes he asked a friend to leak to the press.
Two officials familiar with Trump's legal strategy said his lawyers plan to file a complaint about Comey's leak with the Inspector General's office at the Department of Justice, and with the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees. The officials were not permitted to speak publicly about legal matters still under consideration.
The FBI is investigating links between associates of Trump during last year's campaign and Russians who sought to influence the election by hacking Democrats. Comey said that Trump asked him specifically whether he could drop the investigation with respect to Flynn, the former national security adviser whom Trump fired for withholding information about his contacts with foreign governments.