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Former FBI chief James Comey ’s prepared testimony is a remarkable, real-time recollection of his conversations with a president under siege. Photo: AP
Former FBI chief James Comey ’s prepared testimony is a remarkable, real-time recollection of his conversations with a president under siege. Photo: AP

James Comey recounts uneasy meetings with Donald Trump, demands for loyalty

James Comey said Donald Trump pressured him for loyalty, sought forbearance for Michael Flynn and asked him to lift the cloud of a Russia probe hanging over the administration

Washington: The first time James Comey met Donald Trump, he felt compelled to document their conversations, something he had not done regularly before. He typed up a memo recounting that 6 January encounter on his laptop in a FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower “the moment I walked out of the meeting."

In his nine one-on-one conversations with Trump, which form the basis of Comey’s opening statement to a Senate panel Thursday, the former FBI chief said Trump pressured him for loyalty, sought forbearance for Michael Flynn and asked him to lift the “cloud" of a Russia investigation hanging over the administration.

Comey will testify that he did assure Trump three times that he wasn’t personally the target of a counterintelligence case, confirming statements made by the president as he’s tried to fend off critics.

Comey also will say that he was uneasy with the unusual private conversations with Trump about matters under investigation. Their last was 11 April. Trump fired Comey on 9 May.

Comey’s prepared testimony, released Wednesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee, is a remarkable, real-time recollection of his conversations with a president under siege, complete with Comey’s own reactions—most often, an attempt to betray no emotion or accession to what the president wanted. Comey’s contemporaneous memos allow the nation to hear the president’s own words: “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty."

White House spokesmen referred questions to Marc Kasowitz, a lawyer representing the president in the Russia investigation, who said Comey affirmed Trump’s assertions that he’s not the target of the federal inquiry.

President ‘pleased’

“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," Kasowitz said in a statement released by his office. “The President feels completely and totally vindicated. He is eager to continue to move forward with his agenda."

The testimony is the work of a veteran law-enforcement officer, with details that seem superfluous and literary—the door by the grandfather clock in the Oval Office closing, two Navy stewards buzzing about during his dinner with the president. It also suggests a man seeking to convince listeners of his credibility on the big things by capturing the details too.

More than a historic record, Comey’s words will be studied for the answer to the question of whether Trump committed an impeachable offence. Comey, once the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, offers no opinion on the matter. But his testimony does offer some support for both the president and his opponents.

One key section details Trump’s pleas on behalf of Flynn, who was an early supporter of Trump’s campaign for the presidency and an energetic surrogate. In that instance, Trump asked to speak with Comey alone following a scheduled counterterrorism briefing, a day after Flynn was forced to resign for misleading statements about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador.

Trump said Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong in speaking with the Russians but had misled vice president Mike Pence, according to Comey.

“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.’ I replied only that ‘he is a good guy,"’ Comey wrote.

But Trump supporters can point to what follows. Comey said he didn’t interpret the president’s request to “let this go" in regard to Flynn to be a broad reference to the probe into Russia meddling in last year’s campaign and whether anyone close to Trump colluded in it. US intelligence agencies have found Russia interfered in an effort to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton and, ultimately, to help Republican Trump win.

“I had understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December," Comey wrote. “I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign."

Line of questioning

While that may help Trump on the question of whether he sought to impede the Russia probe, critics saw an opening for other lines of attack. Representative Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Congress must determine whether Comey’s refusal to drop the Flynn investigation led to his firing by Trump.

There was pressure on other fronts, as well. In another section of the testimony, Comey writes of his unease on discovering that he was the only guest at a 27 January dinner with Trump at the White House. During the meal, Comey wrote, Trump quizzed him about whether he wanted to remain head of the FBI even though the president twice previously said he hoped he would stay.

“My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship," Comey wrote. “That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch."

Pressed for loyalty

That’s when Trump pressed him for loyalty. When Trump brought up the subject of loyalty again, near the end of the dinner, Comey promised the president he would “always get honesty."

White House press secretary Sean Spicer flatly denied at a May 12 briefing that Trump asked Comey to pledge his loyalty after the exchange was reported by the New York Times. Trump tweeted the same day that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations."

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said he’s not surprised Comey is confirming that the president asked for his loyalty and tried to end the Flynn probe.

“Just as I suspected," McCain said. “There’s going to be many shoes to drop before this one is over."

Comey has coordinated his testimony with Robert Mueller, another former FBI chief who’s now special counsel in charge of the investigations into Russian meddling, according to a person familiar with Comey’s plans.

‘Duty to correct’

Comey said he decided to document his one-on-one conversations with Trump from the very first one he had, the January briefing at Trump Tower on an unverified and salacious dossier about Trump’s activities in Russia that had been circulating among politicians and the media. In the testimony, Comey recounted several unusual encounters that showed the president fretting about the impact of the Russia investigation on his presidency.

“I did not tell the President that the FBI and the Department of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most importantly because it would create a duty to correct, should that change," Comey says in the testimony released on Wednesday.

In all, Comey said he had nine one-on-one conversations with Trump in four months, three in person and six by phone. By contrast, Comey said he spoke alone with President Barack Obama only twice in the course of three-and-a-half years and didn’t document either conversation.

Comey said his last conversation with Trump took place on 11 April, when the president called to ask what he’d done to get the word out that Trump was not under investigation.

He said Trump told him “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know." Comey said he didn’t reply or ask “what he meant by ‘that thing."’ Bloomberg

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