Back in January, BuzzFeed was widely criticized for publishing an opposition research file about Donald Trump compiled by a former MI5 intelligence officer turned private investigator – the cinematically named Christopher Steele – on behalf of the then-candidate’s political rivals. The crux of the argument against publishing the dossier was that its contents had not been independently verified by U.S. intelligence agencies. The argument in favor of publishing it was that even if the document was unverified, it was highly newsworthy: Both President Obama and now President-elect Trump had been briefed on the details it contained and multiple members of Congress had their own copies.
If there was any lingering doubt about whether BuzzFeed was right to publish the dossier, former FBI Director James Comey put it to rest Wednesday with the written remarks he plans to deliver as an opening statement to his hotly anticipated Senate testimony Thursday. The recurring theme of his remarks, which describe five one-on-one conversations Comey had with Trump between January and April, is that Trump is obsessed with the Russia investigation and one aspect of Steele’s dossier in particular: a tape the investigator says Russian agents claim to possess featuring Trump. Comey’s remarks also appear to indicate that the FBI was itself attempting to determine whether or not the tape existed.
According to the now-infamous document, Trump stayed at the Moscow Ritz Carlton in 2013, where he rented the same suite the Obamas once stayed in and arranged a bizarre performance.
The idea was to defile “the bed where [the Obamas] had slept by employing a number of prostitutes to perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him,” per the document. Steele, who the FBI at one point agreed to pay to continue his work, goes on: “The hotel was known to be under FSB control with microphones and concealed cameras in all the main rooms to record anything they wanted to.” The story, he writes, was confirmed to him by three separate sources, and a fourth, a former Russian agent, further added that the spy agency had collected “enough embarrassing material” about Trump over the years to be able to blackmail him.
The story is so absurd that after the dossier was published it was almost roundly dismissed out of hand even as, over the following months, other aspects of the document were independently verified. In February, U.S. intelligence reportedly confirmed multiple conversations related in the dossier did take place as described. Then, on March 30th, another of the document’s key claims was confirmed – this time that a Russian diplomat described in the dossier as a spy was indeed a spy.
March 30th is significant because it happens to be one of the days that Comey says a worked-up Trump called the FBI director demanding he tell the public the president was not under investigation. As Comey describes in his remarks released Wednesday, “On the morning of March 30, the President called me at the FBI. He described the Russia investigation as ‘a cloud’ that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to ‘lift the cloud.'”
That was one of four times Trump raised the issue with Comey, the former FBI director wrote. The first time the subject came up was when Comey briefed the then-president-elect on the dossier on January 6th – Trumps’s reaction to the briefing was so disconcerting Comey writes he took notes immediately and got in the habit of doing so after every Trump conversation from there on out. The next time was on January 27th. Here’s what Comey recalled about that meeting:
“During the dinner, the President returned to the salacious material I had briefed him about on January 6, and, as he had done previously, expressed his disgust for the allegations and strongly denied them. He said he was considering ordering me to investigate the alleged incident to prove it didn’t happen. I replied that he should give that careful thought because it might create a narrative that we were investigating him personally, which we weren’t, and because it was very difficult to prove a negative.”
The two also discussed the matter again on April 11th, at which point Comey remembers Trump telling him, “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.” (Comey writes that he did not “reply or ask him what he meant by ‘that thing.'”)
Obviously, there is a reason Comey chose to describe the conversations he chose to describe. They are, after all, only half of them – five of the nine one-on-one conversations he says he had with President Trump in the four months he worked for the president. (He noted that he only had two private conversations with Obama in three years, one of which was to say goodbye at the end of his presidency.)
Four of the conversations are about Trump’s intense preoccupation with the Russia investigation, and in particular his preoccupation with the dossier’s most salacious allegations. The fifth is the conversation in which Trump pressures Comey to drop the FBI’s criminal investigation of Flynn. He dedicated about three times as many words to Trump’s obsession with Russia than he did to the president’s demand about Flynn – what one legal analyst characterized as cut-and-dry example of obstruction of justice.
Comey clearly felt it was that important for the Senate Intelligence Committee to be aware of Trump’s preoccupation. And he presented the information deliberately, well aware that we – and the senators questioning him on Thursday – would wonder why.