Besieged White House denies, defends as new bombshells hit
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump personally appealed to FBI Director James Comey to abandon the bureau’s investigation into National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, according to notes, disclosed late Tuesday, that Comey wrote after the meeting. The White House issued a furious denial near the end of a tumultuous day that Trump officials spent beating back potentially disastrous news reports from dawn to dusk.
Earlier, officials staunchly defended Trump’s disclosure of classified information to senior Russian officials. The White House played down the importance and secrecy of the information, supplied by Israel under an intelligence-sharing agreement, and Trump himself said he had “an absolute right” as president to share “facts pertaining to terrorism” and airline safety with Russia. Yet U.S. allies and some members of Congress expressed concern bordering on alarm.
As for Comey, who Trump fired last week, the FBI director wrote in a memo after a February meeting at the White House that the new president had asked him to shut down the FBI’s investigation of Flynn and his Russian contacts, said a person who had read the memo. The Flynn investigation was part of a broader probe into Russian interference in last year’s presidential election.
The person who described the memo was not authorized to discuss it by name and spoke on condition of anonymity. The existence of the memo was first reported Tuesday by The New York Times.
The White House vigorously denied 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,” a White House statement said.
Trump fired Flynn on Feb. 13.
The bombshell Comey news came as the beleaguered Trump administration was still struggling mightily to explain Monday’s revelation that the president had revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and the country’s ambassador to the United States. And the administration is still reeling from Trump’s abrupt firing of Comey.
The intensifying drama comes as Trump is set to embark Friday on his first foreign trip, which had been optimistically viewed by some aides as an opportunity to reset an administration floundering under an inexperienced president.
When Trump fired Comey, he said he did so based on Comey’s very public handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe and how it affected his leadership of the FBI. But the White House has provided differing accounts of the firing. And lawmakers have alleged that the sudden ouster was an attempt to stifle the bureau’s investigation into Trump associates’ ties to Russia’s meddling in the campaign.
Comey’s memo detailing his conversation with Trump would be the clearest evidence to date that the president has tried to influence that investigation. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, said he was ready to subpoena the memo, which was an apparent effort to create a paper trail of Comey’s contacts with the White House.
Other lawmakers also demanded strong action.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said Comey needs to come to Capitol Hill and testify. Other lawmakers agreed, and said it must be soon.
Mark Warner of Virginia, top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said he would ask Comey for additional material as part of the panel’s investigation. “Memos, transcripts, tapes — the list keeps getting longer,” he said.
Republicans were more circumspect but also clearly upset.
John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Trump-Russia reports were “deeply disturbing” and said they could impede allies’ willingness to share intelligence with the U.S.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, said he was not losing confidence in Trump as president but added, “It would be helpful to have less drama emanating from the White House.”
According to the Times, Comey wrote in the February memo that Trump told him Flynn had done nothing wrong. But Comey said he did not say anything to Trump about limiting the investigation, replying simply, “I agree he is a good guy.”
The newspaper said Comey was in the Oval Office that day with other national security officials for a terrorism threat briefing. When that ended, Trump asked everyone to leave except Comey, and he eventually turned the conversation to Flynn.
The administration spent the first half of Tuesday defending Trump’s disclosure of classified information to senior Russian officials. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said the president’s comments were “wholly appropriate.” He used that phrase nine times in his briefing to reporters.
The highly classified information about an Islamic State plot was collected by Israel, a crucial source of intelligence and close partner in the fight against some of the America’s fiercest threats in the Middle East. Trump’s disclosure of the information threatened to fray that partnership and piled pressure on the White House to explain the apparently on-the-spot decision to reveal the information to Russian diplomats in the Oval Office.
A U.S. official who confirmed the disclosure to The Associated Press said the revelation potentially put the source at risk.
In a statement, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, said the partnership between the U.S and Israel was solid.
AP writers Vivian Salama and Jill Pace contributed.