Comey sought more Russia probe resources before firing

Julie Pace, Associated Press

Washington — Days before he was fired by Donald Trump, FBI Director James Comey requested more resources to pursue his investigation into Russia’s election meddling and the possible involvement of Trump associates, U.S. officials said Wednesday, fueling concerns that Trump was trying to undermine a probe that could threaten his presidency.

It was unclear whether word of the Comey request, put to deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, ever made its way to Trump. But the revelation intensified the pressure on the White House from both political parties to explain the motives behind Comey’s stunning ouster.

Trump is the first president since Richard Nixon to fire a law enforcement official overseeing an investigation with ties to the White House. Democrats quickly accused Trump of using Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation as a pretext and called for a special prosecutor into the Russia probe. Republican leaders brushed off the idea as unnecessary.

Defending the firing, White House officials said Trump’s confidence in Comey had been eroding for months. They suggested Trump was persuaded to take the step by Justice Department officials and a scathing memo, written by Rosenstein, criticizing the director’s role in the Clinton investigation.

“Frankly, he’d been considering letting Director Comey go since the day he was elected,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, a sharply different explanation from the day before, when officials put the emphasis on new Justice complaints about Comey.

Trump’s daring decision to oust Comey sparked comparisons to Nixon, who fired the special prosecutor running the Watergate investigation that ultimately led to his downfall. And Trump’s action left the fate of the Russia probe deeply uncertain.

The investigation has shadowed Trump from the outset of his presidency, though he’s denied any ties to Russia or knowledge of campaign coordination with Moscow.

Trump, in a letter to Comey dated Tuesday, contended that the director had told him “three times” that he was not personally under investigation. The White House refused Wednesday to provide any evidence or greater detail. Former FBI agents said such a statement by the director would be all but unthinkable.

Outraged Democrats called for an independent investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia’s election interference, and were backed by a handful of prominent Republican senators. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with the support of the White House, brushed aside those calls, saying a new investigation would only “impede the current work being done.”

The Senate intelligence committee on Wednesday subpoenaed former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn for documents related to its investigation into Russia’s election meddling. Flynn’s Russia ties are also being scrutinized by the FBI.

The White House appeared caught off guard by the intense response to Comey’s firing, given that the FBI director had become a pariah among Democrats for his role in the Clinton investigation. In defending the decision, officials leaned heavily on a memo from Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, that criticized Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation.

Justice Department leaders are interviewing four veteran law enforcement and intelligence officials for the role of interim FBI director, officials said. The position is currently held by Andrew McCabe, top deputy to Comey.

Justice Department officials identified the contenders as Adam Lee and Michael Anderson, who run the FBI’s field offices in Richmond, Virginia, and Chicago, respectively. Others are Paul Abbate, who oversees the FBI’s criminal and cyber branch, and William Evanina, the government’s chief counterintelligence officer and a former FBI supervisor.

The interim chief would serve until Congress confirms a permanent director, which could take some time given bipartisan angst over Comey’s firing. The Senate intelligence committee said it expects McCabe to appear at a hearing Thursday on current and projected national security threats.

Meanwhile, Rosenstein’s own role in Comey’s firing became increasingly murky on Wednesday.

Three U.S. officials said Comey recently asked Rosenstein for more manpower to help with the Russia investigation. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said that while he couldn’t be certain the request triggered Comey’s dismissal, he said he believed the FBI “was breathing down the neck of the Trump campaign and their operatives and this was an effort to slow down the investigation.”

Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores denied that Comey had asked Rosenstein for more resources for the Russia investigation.

Trump advisers said the president met with Rosenstein, as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on Monday after learning that they were at the White House for other meetings. One official said Trump asked Rosenstein and Sessions for their views on Comey, then asked the deputy attorney general to synthesize his thoughts in a memo.

The president fired Comey the following day. The White House informed Comey by sending him an email with several documents, including Rosenstein’s memo.

It’s unclear whether Rosenstein was aware his report would be used to justify the director’s ouster.