Russian President Vladimir Putin compared ex-FBI chief Comey with whistleblower Edward Snowden and offered him asylum during his annual call-in show. Putin also said that the Russian people would decide on his successor.
Answering questions in the Thursday live broadcast, Putin said it was "very strange" that a director of an intelligence agency would make notes of his conversations with President Donald Trump and then leak them to public.
"So, what is the difference between the director of the FBI and [NSA whistleblower Edward] Snowden?" Putin asked. "In that case, he is less a director of an intelligence service and more of a rights' activist advocating a certain position."
Putin also added that, should Comey face any legal repercussions for his actions, "we would be ready to offer him political asylum as well," referring to protective measures Moscow granted to Snowden.
In his testimony before the US Senate last week, Comey said there was "no doubt" that Russia interfered in November's presidential election , and said that the plot reached to the highest echelons of Russian state.
Putin has repeatedly dismissed the accusations, slamming them as unfounded "hysteria" and "useless babble."
'I am still on the job'
The Russian president traditionally holds an annual call-in show on Russian television, with citizens posing questions on a variety of topics over the course of several hours.
Thursday's program also featured Putin commenting on the anti-government protests across Russia, which he claims were organized for "self-promotion" by the opposition.
"I am ready to talk to everyone who is actually aiming to make people's lives better and resolve problems facing the country," he said, adding that some opposition leaders were "speculating" on unrest, or looking to gain from such troubles.
"You shouldn't speculate, you should offer solution. Those who offer solution deserve undivided attention and they are entitled to dialogue with the authorities," he said.
Putin also commented on his possible successor, in a rare move for the politician who has had undisputed de facto authority over Russia for the last 17 years as either president or prime minster.
"First of all, I am still on the job," he said on Thursday. "Second, I will of course make my mind up at one point and have no qualms stating my preferences [about a successor]."
"But the bottom line is that only the voters, Russian citizens, can decide who will lead their region, city, state, or the country."
'When will you resign?'
During the broadcast, Russian public television showed a string of questions critical of Putin on screen, with the unusual move drawing bemused comments online.
"Putin, do you really think that the people believe this circus with its prearranged questions?" was one of the questions displayed on screen.
"When will you stop violating the constitutional limit of two presidential terms?" another citizen asked.
"When you say: 'We take care of our own,' do you mean the embezzlers and corrupt officials?" also appeared on people's screens, as well as "When will you resign?"
Although the questions were displayed during the live show, they were not selected to be answered by the Russian president. The authorities in Russia usually maintain a tight grip on the media, with the critical questions marking an exception to a tightly choreographed show.
dj/msh (AP, Interfax, Reuters)