WASHINGTON — Former FBI Director James Comey will testify Thursday that he understood that President Donald Trump was asking him to “drop” an FBI probe into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn when he said, “I hope you can let this go.”
Trump made that plea for Flynn in an unexpected Feb. 14 Oval Office meeting that Comey said he found “very concerning” for the FBI’s independence, according to Comey’s written opening statement posted Wednesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Comey also said that at a White House dinner on Jan. 27, Trump asked if he wanted to stay on as FBI director, adding, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” The awkward silence that followed was resolved when Comey said he’d give “honest loyalty.”
The early release of Comey’s initial testimony, rich in detail, has only stoked anticipation for his first public appearance since Trump fired him last month, in a nationally televised intelligence committee hearing beginning at 10 a.m.
Trump has denied in interviews on news shows that he asked Comey to let the Flynn probe go or for a pledge of his loyalty.
But Comey’s statement also backs Trump’s claim that he told the president three times he was not a target of the Russian probe, a fact Comey said Trump twice called to ask him to make public to lift “the cloud” over his presidency.
Trump’s attorney, Marc Kasowitz said, “The president feels completely and totally vindicated” and “eager to continue to move forward with his agenda.”
He added, “The president is pleased that Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the president was not under investigation in any Russian probe.”
Yet the seven-page statement on five of the nine one-on-one conversations Comey said he had with Trump will provoke sharp questions from both sides in Thursday’s hearing.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a committee member, said Comey’s testimony raises the possibility that Trump illegally obstructed justice. Trump supporters deny that suggestion.
In his statement, Comey described in detail the Feb. 14 Oval Office meeting when Trump asked him to stay after a bigger session on the day after Flynn resigned for misleading others about speaking to the Russian ambassador in December about U.S. sanctions on Russia.
“When the door by the grandfather clock closed, and we were alone, the president began by saying, ‘I want to talk about Mike Flynn,’” Comey said. Trump said Flynn had done nothing wrong in speaking to the Russians, and complained about leaks of classified information.
“He then said, ‘I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go,’” Comey’s statement said. “I replied only that ‘he is a good guy’ . . . I did not say I would ‘let this go.’”
Comey said he discussed the meeting with FBI senior leaders. “I had understood the president to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversation with the Russian ambassador in December,” he said.
After that meeting, Comey said he implored Attorney General Jeff Sessions to prevent Trump from talking to him directly again, saying it was “inappropriate.” But Sessions did not reply.
Comey also detailed the Jan. 27 dinner at the White House. Comey said his “instincts” told him the dinner was an effort to “create some sort of a patronage relationship.”
Comey recalled that “the president said, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.’ I didn’t move, speak or change my facial expression during the awkward silence that followed,” Comey said.
Near the end of the dinner, Trump said again, “I need loyalty.” Comey promised honesty. Trump said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” Comey said, “You will get that from me.”