WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Throughout the drama of his U.S. Senate testimony on Thursday, James Comey sat ramrod-straight, his mouth set, all business.
It was the posture of a longtime law-enforcement official and former FBI director, someone used to keeping matters close to the vest.
But even the steady, crisp rhythm of his answers could not hide what lay beneath the surface: Comey’s dismissal by President Donald Trump last month wounded and angered him.
Beyond testifying to conversations he said he had with Trump concerning the federal probe into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials, Comey time and again told the Senate committee before him and viewers across the country he not only has a harsh opinion of the president’s purported conduct, but also of his character.
Just minutes into his testimony, Comey said the president and his aides had chosen to defame him by spreading lies about his job performance, attempting to shred a reputation carefully built during 20 years of government service.
“Those were lies, plain and simple, and I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them and that the American people were told them,” he said.
Later, Comey testified he began documenting his conversations with the president because of what he called “the nature of the person.”
“I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting,” Comey said.
Trump, uncharacteristically, stayed silent during Comey’s testimony, despite earlier suggestions from White House aides that he might take to Twitter to respond. He never did, ceding the stage, for the moment, to his nemesis.
He left rebuttals to his son, Donald Trump, Jr., who defended Trump on Twitter, and to his outside lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, who denied the president had ever pressured Comey to drop the FBI’s probe into Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
In response to questions from senators, Comey repeatedly cast Trump as a boss or “patron” trying to secure his loyalty, something that Comey said made him “uneasy.”
At one point, Comey was asked why his version of events should be believed over the president’s.
“I’ve tried to be open, fair, transparent and accurate,” he said, encouraging senators to examine the two men’s “consistency track record, demeanour, record over time, that sort of thing.”
Referring to a Trump comment on social media about the possible existence of tapes that could provide proof of their conversations, Comey said he was so rankled he decided to hand memos of his interactions with the president to a close friend to leak to the media.
“I’ve seen the tweet about the tapes,” Comey said. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
At the White house, in keeping with Trump’s silence, his aides played down the day’s events.
“It’s a regular Thursday at the White House,” Sarah Sanders, the deputy press secretary, told reporters, as televisions in the West Wing blasted Comey’s testimony.
Trump watched at least part of the hearing with his outside legal team, in a dining room at the White House, but Sanders said she did not know if he had seen much of it.
Sanders took umbrage when asked if, as Comey had suggested, the president had lied. “I can definitively say the president is not a liar. I think it’s frankly insulting that question would be asked,” she said.
After Comey’s testimony, Trump delivered a brief speech to a friendly audience at a conference of religious leaders in Washington where he did not mention the controversy.
Throughout the hotel ballroom where the event was staged, attendees expressed support for the Republican Trump and distaste for Democrats and the news media.
“I feel he’s doing a wonderful job for our country,” said Donna Hubers of Baltimore, who was checking her phone for Comey updates.
There were some lighter, and literary, moments in Comey’s testimony.
He recalled at one point that he had to give up a dinner date with his wife because Trump asked to meet him at the White House. That was one of the meetings that Trump allegedly used to pressure Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn.
“In retrospect, I love spending time with my wife, and I wish I would have been there that night,” he said on Thursday, drawing laughs from the senators.
Comey also reached into English history to boost his portrayal of Trump. He was asked by Senator Angus King, an independent, whether he took the president’s references to the Flynn probe in the Oval Office as a directive to drop the matter.
Comey replied with a quotation attributed to King Henry II of England, who was at odds with Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury.
“Yes. It rings in my ear as, well, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?'”
“I was just going to quote that,” Senator King said. “And the next day, he (Becket) was killed.”
Reporting by Susan Cornwell, Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton, and James Oliphant. Writing by James Oliphant; Editing by Kieran Murray and Howard Goller