‘The country is being tested in unprecedented ways’
President Trump asked former FBI director James Comey in February to stop investigating former national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to media reports Tuesday that cited Comey’s notes about the conversation. The news fanned allegations that the president improperly tried to stop the probe into his campaign’s ties to Russia.
“I hope you can let this go,” the president told Comey, according to a New York Times report based on a memo Comey wrote immediately after his meeting.
The report came as the White House was already reeling from the disclosure that Trump disclosed classified information about terrorist plots to Russian officials who visited the Oval Office last week. It emerged Tuesday that Israel had reportedly provided the United States with the sensitive intelligence about an Islamic State plot, with the belief the information would be kept secret.
Together the events added to the crisis atmosphere surrounding the White House. The current siege of damaging news began last week, when Trump suddenly fired Comey, sending shock waves through Washington and among his own Republican allies in Congress. He later acknowledged in a television interview that he fired Comey in part because he disagreed with the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 election.
The day after firing Comey, Trump met with top Russian diplomats and made the disclosure of classified material, creating another self-inflicted firestorm.
The February meeting where he discussed Flynn with Comey in the Oval Office came the day after Flynn was fired. The reason given for that firing was that Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about what he had discussed with the Russian ambassador.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said, according to Comey’s notes as reported by the Times. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
The White House did not directly respond on the record to this latest development, instead sending out a statement to reporters from an unnamed senior administration official denying 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 statement said. “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.”
There were some signs on Tuesday night that Republicans may increase pressure on the White House, which would be a significant development for a leadership that has largely stood by its party’s president.
Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican and chairman of the powerful House Oversight Committee, said his committee would attempt to get the Comey memo, and would use his subpoena power to obtain it if necessary.
Late Tuesday, Chaffetz demanded the FBI turn over all “memoranda, notes, summaries, and recordings” of discussions between Trump and Comey.
Chaffetz’s letter, sent to the acting FBI director, Andrew G. McCabe, set a May 24 deadline for the documents to be delivered to the House committee. “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 wrote.
A number of Democrats demanded that the Senate also issue subpoenas for Comey’s notes and for tapes of Oval Office conversations that Trump has hinted in a tweet that the White House recorded. They also alleged that Trump may have attempted to obstruct the Russia investigation, raising parallels to the obstruction of justice charges that formed the core of Watergate impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon in 1974.
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday night that he was “shaken” by the latest revelations.
“On a day when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, they have,” he said in a speech on the Senate floor. “Concerns about our national security, the rule of law, the independence of our nation’s highest law enforcement agencies are mounting.”
“The country is being tested in unprecedented ways,” he added. “History is watching.”
Since before he took office, Trump has been consumed with the investigations into Russian meddling in the US election to help him and whether his campaign colluded with the foreign adversary.
The White House spent much of Tuesday defending Trump’s decision to reveal the sensitive details, reportedly based on information passed along by Israel, to Russia about an Islamic State plot.
Just days before he leaves on his first foreign trip — with a key stop in Jerusalem — Trump said Tuesday that he had an “absolute right” to disclose the information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
But current and former intelligence officials quoted by The Washington Post and other media outlets said the disclosure potentially compromised a source in the Middle East and angered the United States’ most important ally in the region. Trump’s own comments Tuesday morning about the disclosure contradicted those of his top advisers, who initially refuted a Post story.
As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
...to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
“As president,” Trump wrote on Twitter, “I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
While not admitting any fault of his own, Trump also sought to clamp down on those who he believes are leaking information about him.
I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
“I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community,” he wrote.
The credibility of Trump’s advisers — particularly his communications team — has been steadily eroding. Several top administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, sought on Monday night to discount the initial reporting from numerous news organizations.
McMaster, in a briefing for reporters on Tuesday, did not deny that Trump discussed classified information with the Russians. But he said that Trump was not briefed on the specific source or method of gathering the information — and so therefore could not have passed that information along to the Russians.
“The president wasn’t even aware where this information came from,” he said. “He wasn’t briefed on the source or method of the information either.”
He also defended the president, saying that the Russians could have figured out the information that Trump passed along using “open source reporting,” based on things like news accounts, social media, and other publicly available sources.
“What the president discussed with the foreign minister was wholly appropriate to that conversation and is consistent with the routine sharing of information between the president and any leaders with whom he’s engaged,” McMaster said. “It is wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is necessary to advance the security of the American people. That’s what he did.”
During his presidential campaign Trump repeatedly ridiculed Democrat Hillary Clinton for her use of an unsecured e-mail server while she was secretary of state, through which she and her staff distributed some potentially classified material. Crowds at Trump’s campaign rallies and at the Republican National Convention chanted, “Lock her up!”
European allies reacted cautiously, saying that they may have to reevaluate the amount of information they share with the United States since their own intelligence sources could be compromised.
Burkhard Lischka, a senior German lawmaker who sits on the German Parliament’s intelligence oversight committee, told the Associated Press that if Trump ‘‘passes this information to other governments at will, then Trump becomes a security risk for the entire western world.’’
That the classified information came from Israel provides further complications and diplomatic considerations. While Trump has long boasted of a close relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Russia is allies with several Israeli adversaries, including Syria and Iran.
Israeli media reported in January that intelligence officials there were concerned about sharing information with their American counterparts, worried that it would be passed along to Russia because of the close ties that Trump and his associates had with Moscow.