Former FBI director James Comey has accused US President Donald Trump on Thursday of firing him to try to undermine the bureau's investigation into possible collusion between his 2016 presidential campaign team and Russia.
Mr Trump dismissed Mr Comey on May 9, and the administration gave differing reasons for the action. Mr Trump later contradicted his own staff and acknowledged on May 11 that he fired Comey because of the Russia probe.
Asked at a US congressional hearing why he was fired, Comey said he did not know for sure. But he added: "I take the President's words. I know I was fired because of something about the way I was conducting the Russia investigation was in some way putting pressure on him, in some way irritating him, and he decided to fire me because of that."
Sitting alone at a small table facing a bank of senators who fired question after question, Mr Comey gave short, deliberative answers. He painted a picture of an overbearing President who he did not trust and who pressured him to stop the FBI Flynn probe.
Mr Comey earlier told the Senate Intelligence Committee in the most eagerly anticipated US congressional hearing in years that he believed Mr Trump had directed him to drop an FBI probe into the Republican President's former national security adviser as part of the Russia investigation.
But Mr Comey would not say whether he thought the President sought to obstruct justice.
Mr Comey said the administration had told lies and defamed him and the FBI after the President dismissed him.
Mr Trump had suggested he would live-tweet the hearing, with bars reportedly offering free shots every time he posted a tweet, but has so far been silent. His son Donald Trump Jr posted a series of tweets claiming Mr Comey's testimony "vindicated" his father.
Mr Trump did give a speech however, telling supporters in Washington they were "under seige".
"We're under siege... but we will come out bigger and better and stronger than ever," he said.
"We will not back down from doing what is right... we know how to fight and we will never give up."
During the hearing, Mr Comey said:
- Mr Trump himself was not under investigation at the point of his sacking from FBI
- he took it "as a direction" when Mr Trump remarked he hoped Mr Comey would drop an investigation into Flynn
- he began to take notes of meetings with Mr Trump because he "was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, so I thought it really important to document"
- he had a friend leak a memo of his conversations with Mr Trump to the press in a bid to have a special prosecutor appointed to investigate Russian election interference
- "Lordy, I hope there are tapes," of his conversations with Mr Trump. Three days after Mr Trump fired Mr Comey, the President tweeted that Mr Comey should hope there are "no tapes" of their conversations
- he knew of a "variety of reasons" why Attorney General Jeff Sessions' involvement in the Russia investigation would be problematic before Sessions recused himself in March
- Mr Trump had repeatedly told him he was doing a great job
- the administration chose to defame him and FBI by saying organisation was in disarray - "those were lies, plain and simple"
- he has no doubt Russia interfered with US election, but is confident no votes cast in 2016 election were altered
- it is not for him to say whether Mr Trump tried to obstruct justice in their conversations
- he found conversations with Trump very disturbing
- Mr Trump did not ask him to stop Russia investigation
- the FBI became aware of Russia cyber intrusion in late summer of 2015.
Mr Trump's lawyer Marc Kasowitz said Mr Trump "never" demanded Mr Comey's loyalty, nor "in form or substance, directed or suggested" the FBI drop the investigation into ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn.
He did not take questions from the gathered press.
Mr Comey was largely calm and collected during the hearing, but became passionate when talking about his ex-colleagues and staff at the FBI.
"To my former colleagues: I am so sorry that I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to you properly," he said. "It was the honor of my life to serve beside you, to be part of the FBI family, and I will miss it for the rest of my life."
Obstruction of justice?
Mr Comey's testimony Mr Trump expected loyalty and hoped he would drop an investigation into Mr Flynn could bolster obstruction of justice allegations against Trump, several legal experts said.
Such allegations might be used as the basis for impeachment proceedings, some of the analysts said. Any such step would face a steep hurdle, however, as it would require approval by the US House of Representatives, which is controlled by Mr Trump's fellow Republicans.
Mr Comey said it would be up special counsel Robert Mueller to decide whether Mr Trump could be charged with obstruction of justice.
"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."
According to written testimony posted on the Senate Intelligence Committee's website, Mr Comey said Mr Trump told him during a one-on-one February 14 conversation that his former national security adviser was a "good guy" and hoped that Mr Comey could see his "way clear" to letting go a probe into ties between Mr Flynn and Russia.
Mr Comey's account, released ahead of his appearance before the committee, could show that Mr Trump intended to impede the Flynn investigation, said Michael Gerhardt, a professor of constitutional law at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
"The express discussion of loyalty is disconcerting,” and could heighten speculation that the "president was trying to exert some pressure or at least exert some influence over the Russia investigation," Prof Gerhardt said.
Mr Trump's lawyer Marc Kasowitz did not immediately respond to a Reuters query about whether Mr Comey's testimony would support an obstruction case. But he said in a statement that Mr Trump felt "vindicated" by Mr Comey's confirmation he was not under investigation in any Russia probe.
Question of intent
To build a criminal obstruction of justice case, federal law requires prosecutors to show that a person acted with "corrupt" intent. It does not matter whether the person succeeds in impeding an investigation.
While a sitting President is unlikely to face criminal prosecution, obstruction of justice could form the basis for impeachment.
Bruce Green, a professor at Fordham University School of Law, said it would be difficult to show Mr Trump intended to impede the Flynn investigation. He said Mr Trump could say he was merely vouching for Mr Flynn's character and voicing concerns about how the probe was interfering with his ability to function as president.
Alan Dershowitz, a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School and well-known defence lawyer, added that Mr Trump's comments to Mr Comey were "ambiguous statements" and "not even close to obstruction of justice".
Other legal experts said, however, that details surrounding the February 14 conversation could indicate that Mr Trump intended to interfere with the Flynn probe.
According to Mr Comey, Mr Trump told his close advisers, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner, to leave the room so he could speak to Mr Comey privately.
"Asking others to leave the room could suggest the president was aware that there was something wrong with what he was doing," said Andrew Wright, a professor of constitutional law at Savannah Law School.
Prof Wright said there were other damaging details in Mr Comey's testimony, including that Mr Comey did not document his conversations with former President Barack Obama but "felt compelled" to do so after his first conversation with Mr Trump.
Mr Comey's testimony does "maximum damage" to Mr Trump, Prof Wright said.
Prof Gerhardt agreed the testimony was a blow to Mr Trump, saying: "Some people who weren't concerned before should be concerned now."
Reuters / Newshub.