Demander in chief
As James Comey recalls it, the 6-foot-8 former FBI director found his conversations with Donald Trump more uncomfortable than a middle seat in coach.
Comey described what he found “inappropriate” in an opening statement released in advance of his appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday. The panel, like the FBI and now special counsel Robert Mueller, is investigating Russian election interference and the potential role of Trump’s team.
Invited to dinner at the White House a week after the inauguration, Comey was surprised to find out he was the only guest.
After telling Comey a lot of people would like the top FBI job, Trump said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” Comey responded he could promise “honesty,” and Trump countered: “honest loyalty.”
When they next met, on Feb. 14, Trump brought up the FBI investigation of just-fired National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and said, according to Comey, “I hope you can let this go.”
Then there were two calls — on March 30 and April 11 — in which Trump pressed Comey to “lift the cloud” over him from the Russia investigation and told the FBI director: “I have been very loyal to you.”
What Trump got right
Comey’s statement confirmed one assertion Trump made when he fired him — that the FBI director had told him three times he was not under investigation.
Trump was frustrated that Comey wouldn’t say that out loud. Comey said he couldn’t tell the president that if he made such a statement, it would obligate him to go public if Trump’s personal conduct later became a focus on the investigation.
Still, Trump’s defenders celebrated. A statement from his outside lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, said, “The president feels completely and totally vindicated.”
Except Comey’s testimony flatly contradicts other Trump claims, such as that he never asked him to go easy on Flynn.
How it’s playing
Partisan lines remain. Some Democrats such as Rep. Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee said Comey’s statement was “certainly evidence” of obstruction of justice by Trump. In contrast, Senate Intelligence chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said he didn’t see any “wrongdoing.”
But House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican who has dialed down criticism of Trump in recent months, says it’s “obviously” inappropriate for a president to ask for loyalty from an FBI director who is supposed to be independent.
The take-away: Splatter up
Ahead of the release of Comey’s statement, Trump partisans teed up a campaign-like ad assault against him. Newsday’s Dan Janison writes it’s hard to recall a previous organized offensive like this against a Congressional witness.
One element of suspense is whether Trump will tweet live during the hearing, which could in turn lead to a rapid response he might not enjoy.
Intel chiefs deflect queries
Two top U.S. intelligence officials told the Senate Intelligence Committee that they never felt pressured by Trump to downplay or end the FBI investigation into Flynn, Newsday’s Brune reports.
But Dan Coats, director of National Intelligence, and Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, repeatedly refused to discuss their conversations with Trump or say whether the president had ever asked them to intervene in the FBI’s probe.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe also declined to comment, citing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
New polls show deep public suspicions about Trump’s motives for firing Comey and his relationship with Russia.
A 56% majority of U.S. adults in a Washington Post-ABC News poll say Trump is interfering with investigations of Russian election interference rather than cooperating, while 61% say Trump fired Comey to protect himself rather than for the good of the country.
But there’s not much faith in Comey either — only 36% saying they trust what he says about Russia and the election “a great deal” or “a good amount;” 55% trust him less or not at all.
In a Quinnipiac poll, 31 percent of American voters said Trump did something illegal in his relationship with Russia while another 29 percent said he did something unethical but not illegal. His approval rating was at an all-time low, 34 percent, with 57 percent disapproving.
Trump’s new FBI pick
Four weeks after firing Comey, Trump announced him pick for the next FBI director — Christopher Wray, a former assistant attorney general who became a defense lawyer in white-collar crime cases. He also defended New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the Bridgegate scandal.
If confirmed by the Senate, Wray, 50, he would serve a 10-year term — though, as happened with Comey, it’s within the president’s power to fire him. Expect a lot of questions on confirmation hearings about his commitment to keeping the FBI free from political interference.
Wray, a New York City native, has a shared history with Comey and Robert Mueller, now the special counsel in the Russia investigation.
All three were prepared to quit the Bush administration in 2004 in a dispute if a surveillance program they deemed unconstitutional wasn’t stopped. At the time, Comey was Wray’s boss at the Justice Department and Mueller was FBI director.
See Emily Ngo’s story for Newsday.
Sessions in the doghouse
Trump didn’t take Sessions up on his last offer to resign, but he’s got to wonder what might happen the next time around.
As the president was boarding a helicopter Wednesday, reporters asked him repeatedly if he had confidence in the attorney general. Trump wouldn’t respond. For a second consecutive say, the White House press shop said it had no answer either.
Trump has privately seethed at Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation and publicly second-guessed the Justice Department’s handling of the travel ban case. But according to CNN, Trump is aware that axing the AG now would set off yet another firestorm.
What else is happening:
- Christie on MSNBC offered a novel theory: What Comey interpreted as getting leaned on was lost in translation — it was just “normal New York City” conversation on Trump’s part.
- First Lady Melania Trump and son Barron are expected to move into the White House on June 14, Politico reports. Whether her presence affects Trump’s habits, such as his Twitter rants, will be closely watched.
- Ivanka Trump was disappointed in her father’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate pact, according to Us Weekly, but a “source close to” her says she and husband Jared Kushner take defeats in stride — “They win some and they lose some.”
- A statement from Trump expressed sympathy for victims of two terror attacks that killed 12 people in Iran but added, “states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”
- After taking a Twitter shot the day before at Qatar, in a tense diplomatic dispute with some of its neighbors, Trump spoke to its ruler Wednesday and offered U.S. help to resolve the dispute, the White House said.
- Eric Trump says critics of his father are “not even people.” He told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that he’s “never seen hatred like this” and “morals have flown out the window” when it comes to attacks against his father.
- Remember: the Senate inquiry is just one of three major reviews of the Russia mess now under way.