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Comey's Opening Statement Posted Online Ahead Of Senate Testimony

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

James Comey, the FBI director whom President Trump fired last month, returns to the national spotlight tomorrow. He'll testify on Capitol Hill before the Senate intelligence committee, and that means that the FBI's Russia investigation, a topic that has consumed Washington for the better part of Trump's presidency, also will be front and center. Today the committee released the opening statement Comey is set to deliver tomorrow.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now from the White House to discuss all this. And Mara, to start, can you go through some of the highlights of James Comey's opening statement?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Yes. In that statement, Comey appears to back up what the president has said about Comey informing him on three occasions that the president was not personally under investigation. Comey says the president asked him repeatedly to help him get that fact out. He says the president told him he had nothing to do with Russia. And he asked Comey repeatedly to lift the cloud of the Russia investigation.

In this statement, he talks about the most problematic part of the whole episode from a legal standpoint, and that was this Valentine's Day meeting in the Oval Office when Comey says Trump asked him to stay afterward so he could speak with him alone. He even shooed his chief of staff away when Reince Priebus stuck his head in the door.

And it's then, Comey says, that Trump asked him to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. Comey says the president said, quote, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy." Comey says he believed Trump was speaking only about dropping the investigation of Flynn, not the broader Russia investigation and the links to the Trump campaign.

SIEGEL: Mara, since a lot of this has leaked out in news reports over the past few weeks, what does it add to the narrative about Trump and Comey's relationship?

LIASSON: Well, what's striking about this statement is that it's so filled with vivid, rich detail. And we know from Comey's friends that he did write down all of this contemporaneously after every one of his meetings or conversations with Trump. We also know he's a gifted storyteller. All of that comes through. And it's really going to be a battle now between the credibility of Comey and the president.

SIEGEL: How is the White House responding to all this?

LIASSON: The president's private attorney, Marc Kasowitz, issued a statement today. And as reported by Bloomberg, that statement says the president is pleased that Comey has finally confirmed the president himself is not under investigation. Kasowitz goes on to say the president feels completely and totally vindicated. So what's interesting about this is that the president's lawyer is relying on Comey's credibility, but the outside groups, the super PACs that are blasting Comey in an ad right now, are trying to undermine his credibility and calling him a showboater. So it's a bit of a contradictory message on the eve of Comey's testimony.

SIEGEL: So to set the scene for tomorrow's testimony, we have the fired director of the FBI saying that the president who fired him had wanted him to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn, who had been the president's national security adviser.

LIASSON: That's right. And the president on May 18 denied that he did that. This is a real he-said, he-said situation. Comey makes no legal conclusions in this statement about whether this was obstruction of justice. That's not his job. That's the job of law enforcement. But Comey did say that he was so uncomfortable about these encounters, thought they were so inappropriate that he asked the attorney general not to allow him to meet with Trump alone in the future.

It does tell us that we're no further along the path of determining whether there was collusion with Russia or not, which many Democrats are now beginning to believe might never be proved. It might just be a dry hole. But this does show that at the very least, the president who, even after Comey explained to him how inappropriate it was to not keep an arm's length from the FBI investigation, was still intent on getting Comey and other officials in the government to exonerate him publicly.

SIEGEL: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.