Questions posed by the lone Arkansan sitting on the Senate Intelligence Committee to former FBI Director James Comey on Thursday produced little information that could be publicly disclosed. Arkansas’s Junior U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton was one of more than a dozen Senators to question Comey, who made his first public appearance since President Donald Trump fired him.
Cotton, a Republican, asked Comey about the veracity of reporting from the New York Times and Washington Post concerning possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and about the inquiries into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Comey said he couldn’t answer many of Cotton’s questions in a public forum.
“Do you believe Donald Trump colluded with Russia?” Cotton asked at one point.
“It’s a question I don’t think I should answer in an open setting…when I left we did not have an open investigation focused on President Trump,” Comey responded.
The GOP Senator also asked Comey if he ever considered resigning under Trump, as he did from his post as Deputy Attorney General under the Bush administration in 2004 over a disputed surveillance program.
“You didn’t feel this rose to the level of an honest but serious difference of legal opinion between accomplished and skilled lawyers in that 2004 episode?” Cotton asked.
“I wouldn’t characterize the circumstances in 2004 that way. But to answer, no I didn’t—encounter—any circumstance that led me to intend to resign, consider to resign, no sir,” Comey said.
NPR reports that Comey said he was “concerned” and “increasingly confused” over the explanations Trump gave for the decision to fire him.
"So it confused me when I saw on television the president saying he actually fired me because of the Russia investigation and learned again from the media that he was telling, privately, other parties that my firing had relieved 'great pressure' on the Russia investigation," Comey said, referring to reporting on Trump's conversation with Russian officials in the Oval Office the day after the dismissal.
"The administration then chose to defame me, and more importantly the FBI," Comey said, by claiming the agency was "poorly led."
"Those were lies, plain and simple," Comey bluntly told the committee.
Upon the conclusion of Thursday's public hearing, James Comey was scheduled to meet with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed setting.
On Tuesday, Cotton was one of six Republican Senators to dine privately with President Trump. Speaking to KUAR, Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Michael John Gray said the recent meeting between Cotton and Trump was suspect in light of ongoing investigations.
“It’s interesting that Senator Cotton has dinner with the President and then has questions for Director Comey that can’t be answered publicly. Like, did President Trump give Senator Cotton those questions to ask? Was there some conversation that led to those questions? But generally from our entire delegation I’d like to see more putting politics aside,” Gray said.
The New York Times reports the meeting was to “restart a stalled legislative agenda.” The Times calls Cotton a policy and political “coach” for Trump:
“The president and I tend to agree on some issues that are not what you’d call Republican orthodoxy,” Mr. Cotton said of their shared impulses. He mentioned an immigration-restricting bill that he and Senator David Perdue, Republican of Georgia, have sponsored as an example.
Gray took issue with Sen. Cotton's question directing attention to Comey's tenure with the Bush administration.
“That’s a smokescreen,” Gray said. “Whether it be something in ’04, whether it be discussion around Secretary Clinton’s e-mails. I think what we’re talking about today is where the President at least gave the appearance of trying to influence an investigation.”
The Democratic Party of Arkansas chair said he expects more out of the state's all-Republican Congressional delegation.
“Instead of playing a political game that President Trump carried Arkansas by 60 percent so we can’t speak ill of the President, saying we're worried about our re-election, I would much rather them come out and say we’re not sure where we are here. There are some real questions,” he said. “If these things happened they’re wrong and going to be addressed.”
But for Gray, as many unknowns as there are, enough may be known already to draw at least some conclusions.
“There was some Russian influence. There was some ask by the President to back off from investigations,” he said. "It seems like that’s exactly what people voted against. That kind of political-type behavior where the ones with power are using backroom influence.”