WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump broke his public silence Friday morning on former FBI director James B. Comey's testimony to Congress in the Russia probe, accusing him in a tweet of lying under oath and calling him a "leaker."
A day after he had allowed surrogates to respond for him, Trump took to Twitter to attack Comey directly, writing: "Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication . . . and WOW, Comey is a leaker!"
Trump's statement came as surrogates fanned out to defend the president. On the "Today" show, former campaign aide Corey Lewandowski stated that Comey was part of the intelligence "deep state" out to undermine Trump.
"His goal is to manipulate media, manipulate the press . . . he's everything that's wrong in Washington," Lewandowski said.
But the president's decision to weigh in personally represented a sharp shift in strategy for the White House and could come with political risk for Trump, who has potentially undermined himself legally on other matters through his tweets, including his attempt to impose a "travel ban" on immigrants from some majority-Muslim countries.
The investigations, by the FBI and Congress, into the Trump campaign's contacts with Russian operatives have consumed the White House and distracted the president and lawmakers from his governing agenda.
The probes have focused on the nature of contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials. U.S. intelligence agencies have said Russia stole private emails and other documents from Democrats and released them publicly last year to embarrass Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and aid Trump.
Trump has vociferously denied suggestions that he and his subordinates coordinated with Russia, but he forced out his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after reports that Flynn had misled administration officials over meetings he had with the Russian ambassador.
Comey said he felt uncomfortable with the nature of his personal meetings with Trump, including a private dinner at the White House. He said Trump told him he had "hope" that the then-director would "let Flynn go," and that he took the suggestion as a "direction."
Trump's personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, denied that Trump told Comey to let the case wither. Rather, Kasowitz said, Trump felt vindicated that Comey told him on several occasions that the president was not personally a focus of the investigation, an assertion Comey appeared to back up in his testimony Thursday to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Earlier in the week the president had been spoiling for a fight with Comey, but he was convinced by Kasowitz and his senior aides to stay cool and lie low, according to about a dozen White House officials and other Republicans close to Trump, some of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy.
Kasowitz and White House advisers, including Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Counsel Donald F. McGahn, argued to Trump that they had a rapid-response operation in place Thursday to defend him as vociferously as he would defend himself, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Trump agreed Wednesday not to directly engage on Comey, and by the time the ousted FBI director took the witness stand, tweeting "was not something he was considering," one senior White House official said.
The president instead allowed surrogates to respond on Thursday, including his son, Donald Trump Jr., who posted dozens of tweets to his own account mocking Comey. Later Thursday, Kasowitz issued in a brief statement to reporters in which he accused Comey of lying about his private conversations with the president, flatly denying the former director's assertion that Trump had asked for "loyalty."
In his testimony, Comey, who was fired by Trump last month, told senators that he arranged to have the memos he recorded of his private conversations with the president released by a friend to a news reporter to put pressure on the FBI to appoint a special counsel to lead the Russia investigation.
"Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the President," Kasowitz said.
Kasowitz also asserted that Trump never directed Comey "in form or substance" to stop the FBI's investigation into the Trump campaign's contacts with Russian officials, and he said Comey's testimony confirmed that Trump "was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference" in the 2016 election.