Comey was wor­ried about Trump’s over­tures weeks af­ter he took of­fice.

Di­rect con­tacts broke tra­di­tion of talk­ing through at­tor­ney gen­eral

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael S. Sch­midt NEW YORK TIMES

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.

Memos sought

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.”

Stay­ing in­de­pen­dent

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.

Al Drago / New York Times

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.

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