In the weeks leading up to his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, President Donald Trump met with Comey on at least two occasions and discussed the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign.
But Trump’s version of what was said at those private meetings is at odds with the accounts offered by Comey and those close to him:
- Trump and Comey met for dinner at the White House on Jan. 27. Trump said he thinks Comey “asked for the dinner” because “he wanted to stay on” as FBI director. But the former director of national intelligence said he was told by Comey that Trump requested the meeting and Comey seemed “uneasy with it.”
- At the White House dinner, the president allegedly asked Comey to pledge loyalty to him, according to a New York Times story that quoted “several people close to” Comey. Trump denied that account: “No. No, I didn’t. But I don’t think it would be a bad question to ask.”
- Trump said Comey told him at that dinner and on two other occasions that he was not under investigation. Comey’s associates denied that. “That is literally farcical,” one of Comey’s associates told the Wall Street Journal.
- Trump said he knows that he is not under investigation because a person under investigation is “giving all sorts of documents.” But a person could be under federal investigation without even knowing about it, a former federal prosecutor told us.
- On Feb. 14, Trump allegedly asked Comey to drop the FBI investigation of Michael Flynn, who had resigned a day earlier as Trump’s national security adviser. That account is based on a memo Comey wrote of the meeting, according to the New York Times. But the White House said the memo “is not a truthful or accurate portrayal” of their conversation.
We don’t know who is right. Comey is expected to testify before Congress at some point in the near future. His testimony and the continuing work of the House and Senate intelligence committees may help clear up these conflicting accounts.
But, for now, we will lay out the facts about each of them.
First, a quick recap of some key moments in what the president calls “this Russia thing.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a declassified intelligence report on Jan. 6 that said: “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.” The report said Russian intelligence services gained access to Democratic National Committee computers for nearly a year, from July 2015 to June 2016, and released hacked material to WikiLeaks and other outlets “to help President-elect Trump’s election chances.”
On Feb. 13, Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser after the Washington Post reported that Flynn had “privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia” with the Russian ambassador to the United States before Trump took office, “contrary to public assertions by Trump officials.”
On March 20, FBI Director James Comey told Congress that the FBI had opened an investigation last July into “the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
Trump fired Comey on May 9. As we have written, the White House gave shifting accounts of Comey’s firing. It claimed at first that Trump “acted based on the clear recommendations” of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. In a three-page memo, Rosenstein cited Comey’s handling of the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton.
But Trump, in an interview two days later with NBC’s Lester Holt, said he was going to fire Comey “regardless of recommendation.” The president said that he thought about “this Russia thing” when he decided to fire Comey.
“[Rosenstein] made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it,” Trump said. “And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’”
‘You Are Not Under Investigation’
In that May 11 interview with Holt, Trump said that Comey told him on three separate occasions that he was not under investigation: once at a White House dinner, and two other times on the phone.
Trump, May 11: I actually asked him, yes. I said, “If it’s possible, would you let me know am I under investigation?” He said, “You are not under investigation.”
Comey’s associates — speaking anonymously — dispute that. They told the Wall Street Journal that doing so would violate department policies on criminal investigations. “That is literally farcical,” one of Comey’s associates told the paper.
We don’t know what Comey told Trump, but we know that the FBI is actively investigating Trump’s campaign and whether there were any connections with Russia’s efforts to influence the presidential election.
We also know that Comey told Congress on May 3 that FBI investigators are “always open-minded” and will “follow the evidence wherever it takes us.” We know that because Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, asked Comey whether Trump is under investigation.
Blumenthal, May 3: Have you — have you ruled out the president of the United States?
Comey: I don’t — I don’t want people to over interpret this answer, I’m not going to comment on anyone in particular, because that puts me down a slope of — because if I say no to that then I have to answer succeeding questions. So what we’ve done is brief the chair and ranking on who the U.S. persons are that we’ve opened investigations on. And that’s — that’s as far as we’re going to go, at this point.
Blumenthal: But as a former prosecutor, you know that when there’s an investigation into several potentially culpable individuals, the evidence from those individuals and the investigation can lead to others, correct?
Comey: Correct. We’re always open-minded about — and we follow the evidence wherever it takes us.
Blumenthal: So potentially, the president of the United States could be a target of your ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russian interference in our election, correct?
Comey: I just worry — I don’t want to answer that — that — that seems to be unfair speculation. We will follow the evidence, we’ll try and find as much as we can and we’ll follow the evidence wherever it leads.
In his interview with Holt, Trump also said that he knows he is not under investigation because someone under investigation is “giving all sorts of documents and everything.”
But the fact that Trump is not providing federal prosecutors with “all sorts of documents” is not evidence that Trump isn’t under investigation, said Sam Buell, a law professor at Duke University. “Subpoenas could come at any time,” Buell told us in an email.
“Of course someone can be under investigation and not know it,” David Sklansky, a former assistant U.S. attorney who now teaches law at Stanford University, told us in an email. “The FBI investigates people all the time without telling them.”
“The Department of Justice does sometimes tell people that they are ‘targets’ or ‘subjects’ of a criminal investigation,” Sklanksy added. But the terms “targets,” “subjects” and “witnesses” have specific legal meaning, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Manual.
For example, a prosecutor may inform a person that he or she is a “target” of an investigation if there is “substantial evidence linking him or her to the commission of a crime.”
Buell, who was a former federal prosecutor for 10 years in New York, Boston, Washington and Houston, told us that a person’s status in an ongoing investigation — as a witness, subject or target — is “only good for that moment in time.”
“It is very common in white collar investigations for defense lawyers to ask, ‘What’s my client’s status?'” Buell said. “And it is very common for prosecutors to answer that question. The answer to that question is only good for that moment in time – it always comes with that caveat that a status can change at any time.”
Sklansky agreed. “Even if someone is currently not a target or subject of an investigation, that does not mean they will not later become one,” he said.
The Trump-Comey White House Dinner
On Jan. 27, Trump and Comey had a dinner meeting at the White House. Trump told Holt that he thinks Comey “asked for the dinner” because “he wanted to stay on” as FBI director.
Trump, May 11: I had a dinner with him. He wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on. We had a very nice dinner at the White House —
Holt: He — he asked…
Trump: … very early on. That dinner was arranged. I think he asked for the dinner.
But James Clapper, who stepped down as director of national intelligence on Jan. 20, said he accidentally bumped into Comey on the day of the dinner, and Comey told him that Trump requested the dinner. In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Clapper said Comey was uncomfortable about the dinner.
Clapper, May 14: I was at the Hoover Building on the 27th of January for another event, and spoke briefly with Director Comey. He mentioned to me the invitation he had from the president for dinner, and that he was, my characterization, uneasy with it, both from a standpoint of the optic of compromising his independence and the independence of the FBI.
Again, we don’t know who requested the meeting, but Trump offered a different account than the one Clapper says Comey gave to him.
It was at this dinner that Trump allegedly asked Comey for his loyalty.
Did Trump Ask Comey for a Loyalty Pledge?
Here again we have differing accounts of a private conversation between Trump and Comey,
The Comey version comes via “several people close to” Comey who relayed — anonymously — to the New York Times that during a private dinner a week after Trump was sworn into office, the president asked Comey to pledge loyalty to him.
New York Times, May 11: As they ate, the president and Mr. Comey made small talk about the election and the crowd sizes at Mr. Trump’s rallies. The president then turned the conversation to whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him.
Mr. Comey declined to make that pledge. Instead, Mr. Comey has recounted to others, he told Mr. Trump that he would always be honest with him, but that he was not “reliable” in the conventional political sense. …
Later in the dinner, Mr. Trump again said to Mr. Comey that he needed his loyalty.
Mr. Comey again replied that he would give him “honesty” and did not pledge his loyalty, according to the account of the conversation.
But Mr. Trump pressed him on whether it would be “honest loyalty.”
“You will have that,” Mr. Comey told his associates he responded.
Trump and the White House communications staff have flatly denied that account.
“We don’t believe this to be an accurate account,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy press secretary. “The integrity of our law enforcement agencies and their leadership is of the utmost importance to President Trump. He would never even suggest the expectation of personal loyalty, only loyalty to our country and its great people.”
In a Fox News interview with Judge Jeanine Pirro, Trump also denied that he asked for Comey’s loyalty, adding, “but I don’t think it would be a bad question to ask.”
Pirro, May 13: People suggest that the question that apparently the New York Times is selling, that you asked Comey whether or not you had his loyalty was possibly inappropriate. Could you see how they would think that?
Trump: No, I read that article, I don’t think it’s inappropriate …
Pirro: Did you ask that question?
Trump: No, no I didn’t, but I don’t think it would be a bad question to ask. I think loyalty to the country, loyalty to the United States is important. You know, I mean it depends on how you define loyalty. Number one. Number two, I don’t know how that got there, because I didn’t ask that question.
So whose version is correct? As we said, we have not heard from Comey directly on this. After the New York Times story was published, Trump suggested, via Twitter, that there might be a recording of their conversation.
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
However, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has repeatedly refused to answer whether Trump has such recordings. In his interview with Pirro, Trump said, “Well, that I can’t talk about. I won’t talk about that.”
On May 17, the Senate Judiciary Committee demanded the White House turn over any “records memorializing interactions with Mr. Comey … including all audio recordings.”
Did Trump Ask Comey to Shut Down Investigation of Flynn?
On May 16, the New York Times reported that Trump asked Comey at a private meeting on Feb. 14 to drop the agency’s investigation of Flynn, who had submitted his resignation the day before. The story was based on a memo that Comey wrote immediately after the meeting.
New York Times, May 16: President Trump asked the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, to shut down the federal investigation into Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, in an Oval Office meeting in February, according to a memo Mr. Comey wrote shortly after the meeting.
According to the Times, the memo says Trump told Comey, “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.”
The White House released a statement on background stating that the reported memo “is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the President and Mr. Comey.”
White House statement, May 16: 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 President has the utmost respect for our law enforcement agencies, and all investigations. This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the President and Mr. Comey.
The existence and content of the memo has since been confirmed by several other news outlets. We should note, though, that reporters haven’t actually seen the memo. The New York Times story said that “one of Mr. Comey’s associates read parts of it to a Times reporter.”
But we may soon see that memo and others kept by Comey documenting his communications with Trump.
On May 16, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House oversight committee, wrote a letter to Andrew McCabe, the acting director of the FBI, referencing the New York Times story, and stating, “If true, these memoranda raise questions as to whether the President attempted to influence or impede the FBI’s investigation as it relates to Lt. Gen. Flynn.”
Chaffetz demanded the FBI turn over to the House oversight committee “all memoranda, notes, summaries and recordings referring or relating to any communication between Comey and the President” by May 24.
The Senate judiciary committee made a similar request of the FBI on May 17.
And we may get more than memos. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the judiciary committee, told reporters, “If Mr. Comey is alleging the president did something inappropriate, [he has] an open invitation to come to the Judiciary Committee to tell us about it. I don’t want to read a memo. I want to hear from him.”
On May 12, Comey declined an invitation to appear before the Senate intelligence committee to testify behind closed doors about his firing on May 9. However, the New York Times reported that a close associate of Comey’s said he would be willing to testify, if it was in public.
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