President Donald Trump asked former FBI Director James Comey in a phone call when federal authorities would publicly announce the president wasn’t under suspicion in the bureau’s investigation of possible Trump campaign ties to Russia, The New York Times reported Thursday.
Two people briefed on the call told the newspaper it took place just weeks after Trump’s inauguration. Comey declined to answer the question.
Trump’s inquiry to the FBI director was one of several instances in which his administration directly asked about the FBI probe into whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the presidential election.
In February, senior White House officials confirmed that Chief of Staff Reince Priebus asked FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe to publicly dispute reports of communications between Trump campaign officials and Russia.
This week, The New York Times reported that Comey wrote in a February memo that the president had asked him to drop the bureau’s investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired after he failed to disclose communications with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Benjamin Wittes, a friend of Comey and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, was quoted by the Times in Thursday’s article saying that Comey was deeply concerned by the administration’s requests.
“Comey spent a great deal of energy doing what he alternately described as ‘training’ the White House that officials had to go through the Justice Department and ‘reestablishing’ normal hands-off White House-Bureau relations,” Wittes wrote on the Lawfare blog, of which he is the editor-in-chief, after the Times article was published.
“Comey understood Trump’s people as having neither knowledge of nor respect for the independence of the law enforcement function,” Wittes added. “And he saw it as an ongoing task on his part to protect the rest of the Bureau from improper contacts and interferences from a group of people he did not regard as honorable.”
The Justice Department has long sought to keep an appropriate distance from the White House. A 2009 memo from then-Attorney General Eric Holder set guidelines about interactions, noting the DOJ would only advise the administration “concerning pending or contemplated criminal or civil investigations when ― but only when ― it is important for the performance of the President’s duties and appropriate from a law enforcement perspective.”
Trump abruptly fired Comey last week, and included an unusual passage in his dismissal letter saying he “greatly” appreciated Comey informing him “on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation.” Trump reiterated that point in an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt the next day, claiming the director told him there was no such investigation ― once over dinner and twice on the phone.
One day later, reports surfaced about a dinner in which Trump asked Comey for his loyalty. Comey reportedly declined to make such a pledge.
According to Wittes, Comey was deeply unsettled with Trump’s attempts at rapprochement, and told the story of a White House ceremony days after Trump took office that Comey was invited to attend. The FBI director didn’t feel comfortable attending, and tried to “blend in with the curtains in the back of the room,” Wittes wrote. But the president saw him and drew him in for an awkward hug.
Trump initially cited Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation for the firing, but later said he had considered the ongoing Russia probe before giving Comey the boot.
“I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it,” Trump told NBC News. “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.’”
Amid growing questions over the firing, and calls for an independent investigation, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Wednesday appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to serve as special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election.
Rosenstein said he appointed Mueller so the American people will have “full confidence” in the outcome of the investigation.
Trump on Thursday said the appointment “hurts our country terribly” and called the Russia probe a “witch hunt.”