Comey was worried about Trump’s overtures weeks after he took office.
Direct contacts broke tradition of talking through attorney general
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump called FBI Director James Comey weeks after he took office and asked him when federal authorities were going to put out word that Trump was not personally under investigation, according to two people briefed on the call.
Comey told the president that if he wanted to know details about the bureau’s investigations, he should not contact him directly but instead follow the proper procedures and have the White House counsel send any inquiries to the Justice Department, according to those people.
After explaining to Trump how communications with the FBI should work, Comey believed he had effectively drawn the line after a series of encounters he had with the president and other White House officials that he felt jeopardized the FBI’s independence. At the time, Comey was overseeing the investigation into links between Trump’s associates and Russia.
Those interactions included a dinner in which associates of Comey say Trump asked him to pledge his loyalty and a meeting in the Oval Office at which Trump told him he hoped Comey would shut down an investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Trump has denied making the request.
The day after the Flynn conversation, Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, asked Comey to help push back on reports in the news media that Trump’s associates had been in contact with Russian intelligence officials during the campaign.
Comey described all of his encounters with the president and the White House — including the phone call from Trump — in detailed memos he wrote at the time and gave to his aides. Congressional investigators have requested copies of the memos, which, according to two people who have read them, provide snapshots of a fraught relationship between a president trying to win over and influence an FBI director, and someone who had built his reputation on asserting his independence, sometimes in a dramatic way.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said in a statement Thursday that “the sworn testimony” of both Comey and Andrew McCabe, the FBI’s acting director, “make clear that there was never any attempt to interfere in this investigation. As the president previously stated, he respects the ongoing investigations and will continue working to fulfill his promises to the American people.”
It is not clear whether in all their interactions Comey answered Trump’s question or if he ever told him whether he was under investigation. In the letter Trump sent to Comey last week in which he informed him that he had been fired, Trump told Comey, “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”
The FBI’s longestrunning director, J. Edgar Hoover, had close relationships with several presidents. But in the modern FBI, directors have sought an arm’s length relationship with the presidents they serve and have followed Justice Department guidelines outlining how the White House should have limited contact with the FBI.
Those guidelines, which also cover the FBI, prohibit conversations with the White House about active criminal investigations unless they are “important for the performance of the president’s duties and appropriate from a law enforcement perspective.” When such conversations are necessary, only the attorney general or the deputy attorney general can initiate those discussions.
Comey has spoken privately of his concerns that the contacts from Trump and his aides were inappropriate, and how he felt compelled to resist them.
“He had to throw some brushback pitches to the administration,” Benjamin Wittes, a friend of Comey’s, said in interviews.
Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog and a frequent critic of Trump, recalls a lunch he had with Comey in March at which Comey told him he had spent the first two months of Trump’s administration trying to preserve distance between the FBI and the White House and educating it on the proper way to interact with the bureau.
‘Got them trained’
Wittes said he never intended to publicly discuss his conversations with Comey. But after the New York Times reported earlier this month that shortly after his inauguration Trump asked Comey for a loyalty pledge, Wittes said he saw Trump’s behavior in a “more menacing light” and decided to speak out.
Wittes said that Comey told him that despite Trump’s attempts to build a personal relationship, he did not want to be friendly with the president and thought any conversation with him or personal contact was inappropriate.
Their conversation took place after Comey’s phone call with the president, Wittes said, and Comey told him that his relationship with the president and the White House staff was now in the right place.
“‘I think we’ve kind of got them trained,’” Wittes said, paraphrasing what Comey told him.
Wittes said that in another conversation he told Comey he was encouraged by the fact that the Senate was likely to confirm Rod Rosenstein, a longtime federal prosecutor, as the deputy attorney general.
To Wittes’ surprise, Comey did not completely agree with him.
“He said, ‘I don’t know. I have some concerns. He’s good, he’s solid but he’s also a survivor and you don’t survive that long without making some compromises, and I’m concerned about that.’”
Weeks after his confirmation, Rosenstein wrote a memo that Trump initially cited as the justification for firing Comey. Rosenstein told members of the Senate on Thursday that Trump had already decided to fire him when he wrote it.
Then-FBI Director James Comey was recognized by President Donald Trump at a gathering to honor law enforcement officials in January at the White House. Trump fired Comey last week.