Fired FBI Director James Comey claims that President Donald Trump asked him in late March to “lift the cloud” put over his administration by the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia.
In a written statement submitted in advance of Comey’s expected testimony Thursday, the ex-FBI chief said Trump called him on March 30 to complain that the probe was hindering the White House’s work. “He described the Russia investigation as ‘a cloud’ that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country,” Comey’s statement says. “He asked what we could do to ‘lift the cloud.'”
The former FBI director also confirmed reports that in a February Oval Office conversation, Trump made what Comey interpreted as a request to end an investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, saying the FBI chief should “let this go.”
“The President…returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, ‘He is a good guy and has been through a lot,'” Comey said. “He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President. He then said, ‘I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.’ I replied only that ‘he is a good guy.'”
Comey, who was fired by Trump on May 9, is scheduled to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday in one of the most-highly anticipated congressional hearings in decades.
His revelations could further damage Trump’s presidency, which has been the subject of numerous leaks detailing how he allegedly attempted to interfere in the FBI’s probe into possible collusion between his campaign and Russian officials attempting to the tip the election Trump’s way. Special prosecutor Robert Mueller is now overseeing the FBI’s probe, raising the stakes for Trump.
Trump himself has acknowledged that the Russia probe was a factor in his decision to fire Comey, but the former FBI director’s statement sheds new light on the private conversations Trump had with Comey about the investigation and their relationship.
In the document, Comey expressed discomfort about a Jan. 27 dinner where he said Trump made repeated suggestions that Comey’s “loyalty” would be a requirement to stay in his post.
“The President began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI Director, which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to. He said that lots of people wanted my job and, given the abuse I had taken during the previous year, he would understand if I wanted to walk away,” Comey wrote.
The FBI chief said he interpreted the one-on-one dinner and the thrust of the conversation as “an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship.”
“The President said, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,'” Comey related, calling the exchange “very awkward.”
“I didn’t move, speak or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence,” the ex-FBI chief wrote, saying he eventually tried to defuse the tension by pledging “honesty.”
“That’s what I want, honest loyalty,” Comey recalled Trump replying. The ex-FBI director said that in a bid to end the discussion, he replied: “You will get that from me.”
Comey’s written statement does support Trump’s claims that Comey gave repeated assurances that Trump wasn’t personally under investigation. The former FBI director says he discussed that issue with colleagues before his first meeting with Trump, two weeks before the inauguration, and they agreed Trump could be told he wasn’t a direct focus of the investigation. He was told that at that meeting and later, Comey said.
Comey also said he told Trump in March that lawmakers were briefed that the investigation wasn’t focused on Trump.
“I explained that we had briefed the leadership of Congress on exactly which individuals we were investigating and that we had told those Congressional leaders that we were not personally investigating President Trump,” the ex-FBI chief said. “I reminded him I had previously told him that. He repeatedly told me, ‘We need to get that fact out.'”
Trump’s private lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, seized on that Wednesday as a vindication of the president’s position.
“The President is pleased that Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the President was not under investigation in any Russian probe,” Kasowitz said. “The President feels completely and totally vindicated. He is eager to continue to move forward with his agenda.”
The fact that Trump knew he wasn’t being personally investigated could be seen as undercutting the notion he was trying to obstruct justice, although an effort to block the investigation of another person can also constitute obstruction.
Kasowitz’s statement did not address the other aspects of Comey’s testimony, including his statement that he rebuffed the president’s attempts to have the agency clear him publicly in case the probe did eventually turn to Trump.
“I did not tell the President that the FBI and the Department of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most importantly because it would create a duty to correct, should that change,” Comey wrote.
As Trump returned from a brief trip to Ohio Thursday, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked if Trump stands by previous claims that he never asked Comey for his loyalty or to drop any investigation, Sanders said: “I can’t imagine the president not standing by his own statement.”
In the prepared testimony, Comey explained why he has such detailed accounts of his conversation, describing how he felt “compelled” to document his first conversation with Trump – one that occurred on Jan. 6 at Trump Tower when he briefed the president-elect about the infamous Russian dossier.
“To ensure accuracy, I began to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting,” he said. “Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward.”
Comey added, “This had not been my practice in the past.”
In all, Comey said he had nine one-on-one conversations with the president in four months, and that three of them were in person and six were over the phone.
The new statement from the former FBI director could also cause headaches for top Justice Department officials. Comey reports that he raised concerns with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente about Trump’s interventions, but there was no apparent action.
The fact that Comey did raise concerns with other officials could also help insulate him from Republican attacks regarding why he did not flag Trump’s behavior earlier.
Comey said that, shortly after the president’s entreaty about Flynn, he told Sessions that Trump shouldn’t be communicating with the FBI director. Comey noted that Sessions was present at the Oval Office meeting in February, but departed with others, as Trump kept Comey behind.
“I took the opportunity to implore the Attorney General to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me. I told the AG that what had just happened – him being asked to leave while the FBI Director, who reports to the AG, remained behind – was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply.
Comey says he reported the March 30 “cloud” conversation to Boente “immediately” after it happened.
“I…said I would await his guidance. I did not hear back from him before the President called me again two weeks later,” Comey said. (Boente left his post as Justice’s acting No. 2 on April 26, being transferred to another senior job.)
Justice Department spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment on Comey’s testimony.
However, Justice officials testifying at another Senate hearing Wednesday declined to answer a variety of questions related to Comey and the Russia probe, citing the ongoing investigation and Mueller’s new assignment as special prosecutor.
Comey also appears to suggest that Trump did not have full confidence that some of his associates might have had improper contact with Russians.
“The President went on to say that if there were some ‘satellite’ associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out that we weren’t investigating him,” Comey wrote about his March 30 phone call with Trump.
Comey ends his statement with what he presents as an ominous conversation on April 11.
He says Trump called him to ask about what he had done to “get out” the idea that he’s not personally under investigation. Comey also says that Trump again brought up that “the cloud” was hurting his ability to do his job.
Comey responded by advising Trump to have the White House counsel contact DOJ leadership.
“He said he would do that and added, ‘Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.’ I did not reply or ask him what he meant by ‘that thing.’ I said only that the way to handle it was to have the White House Counsel call the Acting Deputy Attorney General,” Comey wrote.
“That was the last time I spoke with President Trump.”
Powered by WPeMatico