WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump repeatedly pressured the head of the FBI over its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, according to the advance copy of testimony set to be delivered Thursday.
Washington had been bracing for a bombshell.
The prepared text of James Comey’s opening remarks arrived a day early. It laid out no less than five instances where the president allegedly exerted pressure with respect to the Russia affair, before firing the police boss.
Trump allegedly told Comey to “let this go,” on investigating Michael Flynn; repeatedly demanded his loyalty; asked him to ‘lift the cloud” over the White House; and made a threatening-sounding remark in their last chat.
Comey is poised to walk lawmakers through all of this in his long-awaited Senate appearance.
“Wow,” tweeted Norm Eisen, the ethics czar of the Obama White House. ”We have now moved beyond a prima facie case of obstruction (of justice) to a persuasive one.”
On the other hand, Trump will find solace in parts of the presentation. Comey repeatedly states the president had not, on a personal level, been a target of the Russian election-meddling investigation that so preoccupied him.
Here are 10 highlights from text of the opening remarks, in chronological order:
—Comey says he first met Trump on Jan. 6 to brief him on the contents of a salacious dossier. Gathered by an ex-British spy, it said the Russians had compromising material on him. Comey said he felt it was not only important to keep Trump in the loop, but also to spread the word, and weaken the ability of the Russians to use it as blackmail.
—Comey explains how an FBI counter-intelligence investigation differs from a criminal one. It might have several objectives. He says it can be about turning a compromised American into a double-agent; alerting Russian targets; protecting computer systems; or, in some cases, laying criminal charges.
—He assured Trump several times that he was not personally targeted in the counter-intelligence investigation: ”We did not have an open counter-intelligence case on him.”
—Comey started making notes on his meetings with Trump, the moment he left their first encounter: ”I began to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting. Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward. This had not been my practice in the past (with Barack Obama).”
—Trump invited him to dinner on Jan. 27: ”The President said, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.’ I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression… during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner…. The President returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay… He then said, ‘I need loyalty.’ I replied, ‘You will always get honesty from me.’ He paused and then said, ‘That’s what I want, honest loyalty.’ I paused, and then said, ‘You will get that from me.’… It is possible we understood the phrase ‘honest loyalty’ differently.”
—In an Oval Office meeting on Feb. 14, Trump dismissed everyone from the room. ”When the door by the grandfather clock closed, and we were alone, the president began by saying, ‘I want to talk about Mike Flynn.”’ They discussed Flynn’s firing as national security advisor. Trump said he hadn’t done anything wrong, but had to be let go because he’d misled the vice-president about chats with the Russians. Trump said: ”’He is a good guy and has been through a lot… 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.’ I replied only that ‘he is a good guy.’… I did not say I would ‘let this go.”’
—Comey was concerned. ”I immediately prepared an unclassified memo of the conversation about Flynn and discussed the matter with FBI senior leadership. 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… It was very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.”
—Comey said he was asked to ‘lift the cloud’: ”(Trump) said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to ‘lift the cloud.’ I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our having done the work well. He agreed, but then re-emphasized the problems this was causing him.”
—Trump wanted the world to know he wasn’t a target: ”He repeatedly told me, ‘We need to get that fact out.”’ Comey said the FBI and Department of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements, to avoid having to publicly correct them later should the situation change.
—The president appeared to threaten him in their last phone call on April 11: ”(Trump said), ‘I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.’ I did not reply or ask him what he meant by ‘that thing.’… That was the last time I spoke with President Trump.”
Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press