President Donald Trump’s White House was rocked on Tuesday night by allegations that Trump tried to shut down an FBI investigation into one of his former aides, as the administration struggled to manage a growing list of scandals.
Former FBI Director James Comey detailed in a memo that Trump asked him in the Oval Office to drop the probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to a friend of Comey, a request that came just one day after Trump ousted Flynn for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
The New York Times first reported the existence of the memo, which appears to be one of many documents Comey drafted regarding his conversations with Trump.
“It’s very rich in detail and hopefully it will come out soon,” the friend of Comey, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told POLITICO. “There are other memos about his meetings too. He wrote down every word Trump said to him as soon as he could.”
The news sent shockwaves across Washington and adds to the controversy overwhelming the White House, which was already dealing with the fallout from Trump’s firing of Comey last week and Trump’s alleged disclosure of highly classified information to Russian officials.
And on Capitol Hill, where Republicans have so far generally backed Trump, a new mood was evident among members. Many expressed deep concern about the latest revelations and demonstrated a new willingness for congressional involvement — from House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz saying he will subpoena the memo to a chorus of voices calling for Comey to testify publicly on the matter. The shift could represent cracks in the bulwark that has, so far, insulated Trump from the most severe scrutiny.
On Tuesday night, Chaffetz demanded the FBI hand over all documents detailing communications between Trump and Comey within the next week. In a letter directed to acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, Chaffetz wrote that Comey’s memos, “if true … raise questions as to whether the president attempted to influence or impede the FBI’s investigation as it relates to to Lt. Gen. Flynn.”
The White House immediately pushed back against the allegations.
“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 White House said in a written statement.
But the accusation, which suggests Trump tried to interfere in a federal investigation into one of his top associates, represents one of the most serious allegations against Trump to date.
Such a revelation was expected by some.
“One thing I learned at DOJ about Comey: he leaves a protective paper trail whenever he deems something inappropriate happened. Stay tuned,” Matthew Miller, a former DOJ spokesperson, wrote on Twitter last week.
The latest swell of controversy started last Tuesday, when Trump abruptly fired Comey, despite the fact that the FBI has an ongoing investigation into whether Trump’s campaign aides colluded with Russian officials ahead of the election.
The White House gave varying justifications for the firing. The initial explanation was that Trump fired Comey based on a recommendation from top Justice Department officials, but Trump later refuted this, saying he was going to fire Comey regardless and did it with the Russia investigation in mind.
The New York Times then reported that Trump had asked him at a dinner to pledge his loyalty to him, a request Comey declined. The White House disputed that account as well.
Trump then fueled the controversy by suggesting he had his own documentation that could prove damning to Comey.
“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump tweeted in response to that story last Friday.
The White House has since refused to comment on whether Trump is recording conversations in the Oval Office, and a number of people close to him said they do not know.
Despite the evolving explanations, Trump’s decision to fire Comey prompted questions from both Democrats and Republicans about whether Trump was impeding an investigation into his own campaign.
Then, adding to the White House’s headaches, news broke on Monday in The Washington Post that Trump had divulged classified information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The White House scrambled to contain the fallout, alleging Trump had done nothing improper even while declining to say whether he had in fact divulged classified information.
The report that Trump had asked Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn follows months in which Trump has defended his former national security adviser, even after asking for his resignation.
He said on Twitter that Flynn was right to ask for immunity and blamed “fake media” for their treatment of Flynn — even though top government officials have since corroborated media accounts.
For Democrats on the Hill, the memo provided further evidence that Trump’s actions need to be thoroughly investigated.
“Enough is enough. The Congress really needs to get to the bottom of this,” Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters. “If true, this is yet another disturbing allegation that the president may have engaged in some interference or obstruction of the investigation.”
Schiff said he wants Comey to testify publicly on his conversations with Trump.
He may soon get his wish, as Comey could soon be addressing the matter himself. He was invited by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to testify publicly at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to “tell his side of the story,” Graham said Tuesday, before the Times story broke.
“On a day when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, they have,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the floor Tuesday, describing himself as “shaken” by the reported Comey memo.
“The country is being tested in unprecedented ways. I say to all of my colleagues in the Senate: History is watching.”
Republican Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, wrote on Twitter that his committee “is going to get the Comey memo, if it exists.”
“I need to see it sooner rather than later. I have my subpoena pen ready,” he added.
But some Republicans, who have so far resisted calls for a special prosecutor to investigate Trump, continued to cast doubt on the most recent developments.
“I think the burden is on The New York Times, if they’re reporting it and they’ve got somebody who’s got the document,” said Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.). “They need to get the document and get it released.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), whose committee has oversight of the FBI, noted that the bureau’s acting director, McCabe, testified before lawmakers last week that there had been no presidential interference into a larger probe into Russian meddling in the election.
“All I’m pointing out to you is the conflict between two people,” Grassley said in a brief interview.
Democratic senators said McCabe could have been out of the loop in the conversations between Trump and Comey, or the former FBI director may have intercepted Trump’s attempts to halt the Flynn probe, leaving no impact on the federal investigation.
“Obstruction of justice is what it looks like to anybody’s who’s looking at it,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has been working with Graham to probe the FBI’s role in the federal Russia investigation. “It’s not just me. This is about as lay down a case … as a prosecutor could imagine.”
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) urged Comey, who turned down an invitation from the Senate Intelligence Committee to speak to it in private, to testify in public about the matter.
“It’s stunning, breathtaking to think that a president of the United States would consider reaching out to the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and ask them to stop the investigation on anyone, particularly someone who was the national security adviser and is facing allegations that he had undisclosed conversations with the Russians,” Durbin said. “Each day as this unfolds, this pattern of obstruction of justice grows.”
Other Republicans acknowledged the growing seriousness of the situation.
GOP Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) acknowledged that this latest revelation could be serious trouble.
“That would be a problem, if it’s true. That would be a problem,” Simpson said.
Asked whether it was an impeachable offense, Simpson said, “I’m not ready to go there yet. But that would be a problem.”
GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) said she was “still trying to figure out what happened,” adding “I hope there is transparency on this.”
McMorris Rodgers said she would support having Comey testify before Congress. “Yes, I would like to see that,” McMorris Rodgers said.
Still other Republicans were already pointing the finger at leakers — or waving a different finger.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said such information can be “misleading.”
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), when asked about the news by a POLITICO reporter, looked her in the eye, gave her the middle finger and walked away.
Like all House members, he is up for reelection in November 2018.
Kyle Cheney, John Bresnahan, Rachael Bade, Austin Wright and Heather Caygle contributed to this report.