White House denies trying to stop FBI probe
Washington — FBI Director James Comey wrote in a memo that President Donald Trump had asked him to shut down an FBI investigation into ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, a person familiar with the situation told the Associated Press Tuesday.
The person had seen the memo but was not authorized to discuss it by name and spoke on condition of anonymity. The existence of the memo was first reported Tuesday by the New York Times.
The White House denied the report.
“While the President has repeatedly expressed his view that General Flynn is a decent man who served and protected our country, the President has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn,” the White House said in a statement.
Trump abruptly fired Comey last week, saying he did so based on his very public handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe.
But the White House has provided differing accounts of the firing. And lawmakers have alleged that the sudden ouster was an attempt to stifle the bureau’s investigation into Trump associates’ ties to Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Comey’s memo detailing his conversation with Trump would be the clearest proof to date that the president has tried to influence that investigation. The Times said it was part of a paper trail Comey created documenting what he saw as Trump’s efforts to improperly interfere in the ongoing probe.
According to the Times, Comey wrote in the February memo that Trump told him Flynn had done nothing wrong. But Comey did not say anything to Trump about limiting the investigation, replying, “I agree he is a good guy.”
The newspaper said Comey was in the Oval Office that day with other national security officials for a terrorism threat briefing. When that ended, Trump asked everyone to leave except Comey, and he eventually turned the conversation to Flynn.
Comey didn’t directly respond to Trump’s request, which was made in February a day after Flynn was fired for deceiving the vice president about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Comey prepared the account immediately after his meeting with the president, and sent copies of the memo to FBI leadership and to some of his closest associates.
It wasn’t immediately clear who within the FBI received or saw the memo, including whether acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe did. The White House has pointed to testimony that McCabe gave to lawmakers last week saying there has been no effort to impede the FBI’s probe.
FBI spokeswoman Carol Cratty and the Justice Department declined to comment.
On Tuesday, for the second night in a row, Senate Republicans and Democrats were caught off-guard as they entered the chamber for a scheduled vote.
“I don’t know the facts, so I really want to wait until I find out what the facts are before commenting,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters.
Asked if it would be obstructing justice for Trump to have asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation, Cornyn said: “You know, that’s a very serious charge. I wouldn’t want to answer a hypothetical question.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., emphatically said he’s not commenting on news stories.
“Let’s get to the bottom of what happened with the director. And the best way to get to the bottom of it, is for him to testify. … I’m not going to take a memo, I want the guy to come in,” Graham told reporters, adding, “If he felt confident enough to write it down, he should come in and tell us about it.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Comey needs to come to Capitol Hill and testify.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he will ask Comey for additional material as part of the panel’s investigation. “Memos, transcripts, tapes — the list keeps getting longer,” he said.
Several Democrats said the allegation, if verified, amounted to obstruction of justice, a crime that was among the articles of impeachment drawn up against Richard Nixon. Nixon resigned office in 1974, engulfed by the Watergate scandal.
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Judiciary Committee, called the memo as reported “powerful evidence of obstruction of justice.”
“If there were ever a final nail on the case for an independent prosecutor, this is it,” Blumenthal said at the Capitol. “And there’s more behind it. There are other memos.”
He and other Democrats said Comey must testify before lawmakers about his conversations with the president.
Representative Jason Chaffetz, head of the House Oversight Committee, delivered the strongest Republican response, saying his panel will demand to see the memo.
“@GOPoversight is going to get the Comey memo, if it exists. I need to see it sooner rather than later. I have my subpoena pen ready,” Chaffetz wrote in a tweet.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a key Republican, refused to comment as he walked along a Capitol corridor, saying, “you know I don’t” give hallway interviews.
Arizona Republican Rep. Trent Franks defended Trump.
“If his objective was to see that Flynn got a square deal then I think that’s entirely appropriate,” Franks said. “I don’t think he intended to obstruct justice.”
There is no sign the FBI’s Russia investigation is closing. McCabe told Congress last week the investigation is “highly significant” and said Comey’s dismissal would do nothing to impede the probe.
Bloomberg News contributed.