Ousted FBI chief James Comey accused the White House of lies and defamation Thursday, beginning explosive testimony against Donald Trump that threatens the future of his young presidency.
After solemnly raising his right hand and vowing to tell the whole truth, a visibly aggrieved Comey kicked-off his testimony with a bid to set the record straight about the state of the bureau he led until he was sacked last month.
"Although the law requires no reason at all to fire an FBI director, the administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the work force had lost confidence in its leader."
"Those were lies plain and simple," Comey said, firing a shot of tension through hearing room 216 of the Senate's Hart building, which stood silent except for the shutter clicks of a phalanx of photographers, there to capture this moment of pure political theater.
Detailing private talks with a sitting president -- which under normal circumstances would never see the light of day -- Comey described pressure from the commander-in-chief that he found "very disturbing" and "very concerning."
For much of the rest of the day, Comey will give details about a probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, an investigation that has ensnared close aides of the president and has vast-ranging political and geopolitical implications.
"We are here because a foreign adversary attacked us right here at home. Plain and simple," said Senator Mark Warner, the ranking Senate Intelligence Committee, in opening remarks.
"Not by guns or missiles, but by foreign operatives seeking to hijack our most important democratic process -- our presidential election."
In written testimony released on the eve of Comey's apparence, the lawman detailed Trump's pressure for him to show loyalty and drop a probe into former national security advisor Michael Flynn's Russia links.
Democrats are intent on determining whether Trump's actions amounted to obstruction of justice, while Republicans have zeroed in on Comey's admission he assured the president on more than one occasion he was not personally a target of the FBI's investigation.
Trump is sure to be watching at least some of the televised testimony, and may resist White House aides' entreaties to stay away from Twitter.
He is scheduled to address a conference of Christian conservatives two hours after the start of the 10 am (1400 GMT) Senate hearing.
Trump abruptly fired Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on May 9, admitting later that the Russia probe was on his mind at the time.
In his written statement, Comey described his mounting discomfort in the weeks leading up to his dismissal as Trump pulled him aside in one-on-one encounters and in phone calls to press him on the probe into Trump campaign associates and possible collusion with a Russian effort to tilt the 2016 vote in the Republican's favor.
At a private White House dinner on January 27, just days after the billionaire took office, Comey said Trump appeared to want to "create some sort of patronage relationship" with him.
"The president said, 'I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.' I didn't move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed," Comey said.
In an Oval Office tete-a-tete the following month Comey said Trump pressed him to drop the FBI investigation into Flynn, who had been fired for lying to the vice president about his unreported conversations with the Russian ambassador.
Comey said it was not for him to decide whether the president's actions amounted to obstruction of justice, a serious crime that could lead to impeachment.
But he called Trump's approaches "a very disturbing thing, very concerning."
He also described trying to insulate himself and the FBI from political pressure in the weeks before Trump fired him, as the president complained about the Russian probe and labeled it "fake news."
Networks and cable news stations provided blanket coverage of the hearing, and a number of bars in Washington were opening early, with TVs tuned to live broadcasts of the hearing -- one of them offering free drinks every time Trump tweets about Comey.
On site, more than 300 people were lined up for the hearing in a room with 88 public seats.
"It's a piece of history and I wanted to be here for it," said one young House staffer who asked not to be named -- and who arrived at 5:15 am.
Analysts said Comey, an intensely by-the-book law enforcer whose handling of a separate investigation into Democrat Hillary Clinton last year may have cost her the presidential election, was studiously avoiding accusing the president of a crime.
But Comey was not the only one who reportedly leaned on by Trump. The Washington Post reported that the president also approached Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency chief Mike Rogers about the Flynn probe.
Testifying Wednesday, both said they never felt "pressure" to intervene in the investigation, but neither denied the Post stories, and dodged questions about whether Trump asked them to intervene.
The White House and Trump's allies have sought to put a positive spin on Comey's bombshell testimony.
"The president feels completely and totally vindicated. He is eager to continue to move forward with his agenda," said Marc Kasowitz, hired by Trump as his personal lawyer to deal with issues linked to the Russia investigation, after the statement was released.
But Republicans were uneasy.
Asked if Trump had acted appropriately, Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr said:i
And Democrats have been quick to draw parallels with the Watergate scandal, when president Richard Nixon, facing impeachment for obstruction of justice, was forced to resign in 1973.