By JOHN T. BENNETT and NIELS LESNIEWSKI
Congressional Democrats warned President Trump may have obstructed justice by allegedly asking then-FBI Director James Comey to drop a probe of a former White House official, charges the the White House denies.
Top Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, a former Judiciary chairman, suggested if a New York Times article posted Tuesday evening is accurate, Trump could be in serious legal trouble. Tellingly, congressional Republicans were mostly quiet as the report sent ripple waves through Washington and the country.
And all 33 Democratic members on two key committees — the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the House Committee on the Judiciary — called for an immediate joint investigation “into whether President Donald Trump and his top officials are engaged in an ongoing conspiracy to obstruct the criminal, counter-intelligence, and oversight investigations currently being conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Justice, and Congress into members of his presidential campaign and their contacts with Russian officials.”
That request was included in a letter sent to the Republican House members who chair those committees.
Citing sources close to Comey, the New York Times article refers to a memo he purportedly wrote immediately after an Oval Office meeting with Trump. During that meeting, the president allegedly urged the FBI boss to end his agency’s probe of former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s financial ties to Russia — which senior Justice Department officials concluded could have made him subject to blackmail.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump told Comey during the Feb. 14 meeting, which occurred a day after the president fired Flynn for lying to Vice President Mike Pence, according to the memo read to Times reporter by the sources. “He is a good guy,” Trump allegedly said. “I hope you can let this go.”
The president counseled the nation’s then-top cop that his former campaign and White House adviser had done nothing wrong, according to the report, which alleges that Comey only agreed that Flynn “is a good guy.”
“If these reports are true, the President’s brazen attempt to shut down the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn,” his first national security adviser, “is an assault on the rule of law that is fundamental to our democracy,” Pelosi said in a statement. “At best, President Trump has committed a grave abuse of executive power. At worst, he has obstructed justice.”
Leahy, a former Senate Judiciary chairman well-versed in legal matters, suggested that Trump might have committed a crime after he learned of the New York Times report.
“To stop a criminal investigation?” said Leahy. “If it’s true, in the days when I was a prosecutor it would be called obstruction of justice.”
The White House quickly tried to shoot down the Times’ Tuesday evening report about Comey’s memo.
After yet another wild morning and early afternoon at the White House, during which the new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer worked to end another controversy about the president possibly giving Russian officials classified data, things had turned quiet.
In the basement of the press area, reporters commented to one another that things at the always-chaotic executive mansion were “too quiet.”
Minutes later, the Times story was published online.
The White House rushed a statement out via the day’s print press pool that called the report incorrect.
“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 official said.
“The president has the utmost respect for our law enforcement agencies, and all investigations,” the official added. “This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey.”
Comey reportedly made such memos after many of his conversations with the president, and shared this one with senior FBI officials. Collectively, he and his former underlings decided to keep them under wraps so as to avoid affecting the bureau’s probe into Russian election meddling, of which the Flynn investigation is a part.
Such a “contemporaneous” document could carry more weight in an investigation because it would be an account of what happened, written down soon after the alleged discussion between Trump and Comey, and before Comey was fired.
The question of whether or not the memo exists may be quickly resolved. Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, tweeted Tuesday that he needed to see it “sooner rather than later” and had his “subpoena pen ready.”
.@GOPoversight 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.— Jason Chaffetz (@jasoninthehouse) May 16, 2017
AshLee Strong, Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s spokeswoman, supported Chaffetz’s pursuit of the memo.
“We need to have all the facts, and it is appropriate for the House Oversight Committee to request this memo,” she said.
Trump essentially went to war with Comey last Friday when he tweeted out that the former FBI director better hope there are “tapes” of their private conversations. Spicer refuses to confirm or deny their existence.
Turning up the heat
Democratic lawmakers increasingly have expressed concerns, but Tuesday’s developments promoted an even more aggressive stance.
Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee — like several others — called for an independent investigation.
Engel said he sees “growing evidence” that Trump “will do whatever it takes — including abuse of power and what may even be obstruction of justice — to make the Russia investigation disappear.”
House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said he wants Comey to testify before the committee during an open hearing.
“If true this is yet another disturbing allegation that the president may have engaged in some interference or obstruction of the investigation,” Schiff said, adding Congress should request Comey’s notes, as well as any tapes Trump might have made. If necessary, those items should be subpoenaed, he said.
“Enough is enough,” Schiff said. “Congress really needs to get to the bottom of this.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., came to the floor just shy of 6:30 p.m. Tuesday to say he was “shaken” by Comey’s allegations that “the president tried to shut down an active FBI investigation into a close political associate.”
“In a week full of revelation after revelation, on a day when we thought things couldn't get any worse, they have,” he said. “Independence of our nation's highest law enforcement agencies are mounting. The country is being tested in unprecedented ways. I say to all of my colleagues in the Senate: ‘History is watching.’”
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who succeeded Leahy as the top Judiciary Committee Democrat, told reporters that while it was only one news report, she wanted to hear from Comey.
“We are the oversight committee, and I want to talk to Sen. Grassley because I believe we should begin to hold hearings as a full committee on this,” Feinstein said.
Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., reacted to the report on Twitter this way: “Seriously?!” and called for an independent investigation of potential ties between the president and Moscow because “every day it’s something different.”
Seriously!? This is why we need an independent investigation into Trump-Russia ties. Everyday it's something different. https://t.co/WOkrLmOlRj— Rep. Ruben J. Kihuen (@RepKihuen) May 16, 2017
House Democrats on Wednesday are planning to launch a discharge petition on a bill that would establish an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate Trump-Russia ties.
For a discharge petition to be successful in forcing a floor vote, it requires signatures from a majority of House members. Finding a few dozen Republicans to sign onto the petition is likely to be a heavy lift.
“That's someone else'’s call — a U.S. Attorney in Virginia — not mine, but it would seem that it's certainly timely and relevant,” the Illinois Democrat said.
Rep. Peter King, a GOP member of the Intelligence Committee, said if Comey had felt pressure from the president then he should have told Congress before the Times story broke. King said today was the first day he had learned of Comey’s memos.
Asked if he had concerns about any reports that have emerged in the last 48 hours, the New York Republican said: “To me, everything so far is unsubstantiated.”
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, who removed himself from consideration for FBI director earlier in the day, told CQ Roll Call that he expected lawmakers would be hearing directly from Comey about the reported memo, but he otherwise declined comment on the story published by the New York Times.
“I’m aware of the story, but I don’t really ... have any basis to comment on it because I just don’t know what the facts are,” the Texas Republican said. “You know he was invited to come testify before the Intelligence Committee and he said he wanted to do it in an open setting, so I’m sure we'll be hearing from him.”
Cornyn serves on both the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, which have been spearheading the two Senate investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and would be the most likely venues for any Comey testimony.
Lindsey McPherson and Rema Rahman contributed to this report.