WASHINGTON - Former FBI director James Comey erased any doubt this week that President Trump asked him to halt a key part of his investigation into the Russian collusion scandal and insisted on his complete “loyalty.”
In testimony before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, Comey produced a detailed recitation of what Trump told him in their meetings over the course of the past several months — supporting allegations that had been leaked to the news media and that the president has denounced as “fake news.”
In a dramatic, nationally televised presentation, drawn from contemporaneous memorandums, complete with quotes from Trump, that he wrote immediately after their meetings, Comey made it clear that the president had attempted to interfere in the FBI’s investigation, suggesting that his job hung in the balance if he didn’t do what Trump wanted.
In a Feb. 14 Oval Office meeting, Trump wanted to talk about the investigation into his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had resigned the previous day, when he lied to Vice President Pence, saying he hadn’t talked to Russian officials during the campaign.
After asking others at the meeting to leave, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Comey’s boss, “the president began by saying Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong in speaking with the Russians,” the FBI chief said in written testimony released the day before Thursday’s hearing.
“He is a good guy and has been through a lot,” Trump said. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go… I hope you can let this go.”
“I had understood the president to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December,” Comey said.
Needless to say, Comey said, “I did not say I would “let this go.”
Still, he added, “it was very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.”
At an earlier meeting on January 27, Trump had invited Comey to a private dinner in the White House’s Green Room, just the two of them. It was then that the president raised the issue of his job, asking “whether I wanted to stay on as FBI Director, which I found strange…”
Comey concluded that “the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status…”
Comey told Trump “I loved my work and intended to stay and serve out my ten-year term as director.”
“And then, because the set-up made me uneasy, I added that I was not ‘reliable’ in the way politicians use that word, but he could always count on me to tell him the truth.”
Then a few moments later, Trump said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” at which point Comey said, “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 conversation resumed, with Comey giving Trump a tutorial of sorts about the independence of the Department of Justice and especially the FBI, and the dangers of “undermining public trust in the institutions” of government “and their work.”
But Trump wanted to hear none of that, and once again said, “I need loyalty.” But Comey replied, “You will aways get honesty from me.”
To which Trump responded, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.”
Comey wrote a detailed memo “immediately afterwards,” about what was said at the dinner, and shared it with his senior leadership team.
But, as the investigation widened, the president wanted something more from Comey than just his loyalty which he didn’t get. And so he was fired.
During a March 30 phone call from the White House, Trump said, according to Comey’s testimony, “a cloud” had settled over his presidency, making it difficult to move his agenda forward, and “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 reminded Trump that he had already told him that, but he wanted the director himself to “get that out” to the news media. That of course wasn’t Comey’s job, so during an April 11 call from Trump, still looking for a way to promote that story line, the FBI director told him “the way to handle it was to have the White House Counsel call the Acting Deputy Attorney General.”
Three things are clear right now. Trump has interfered with the FBI’s investigation, spurring talk about obstruction of justice. His agenda is firmly stalled in Congress. And the highly respected Gallup Poll had his job approval score at 39 percent at the end of May.