Comey to say Trump asked for Mike Flynn inquiry to be dropped

Ex-FBI chief to face Intelligence Committee, marking escalation in Russia controversy

Former FBI director James Comey will state that US president Donald Trump asked him to drop the FBI investigation into former national security chief Mike Flynn when he appears before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, marking a dramatic escalation of the Russia controversy that has dogged the US president since his election.

According to Mr Comey’s prepared opening statement published by the committee on the eve of his appearance, Mr Comey will also claim the president pressured him to assert publicly that he personally was not under investigation.

The fired FBI director’s written statement claims Mr Trump told him during a meeting in the Oval Office on February 14th that Mike Flynn was “a good guy and has been through a lot”.

“He then said, ‘I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” the testimony alleges.


Closed briefing

Thursday’s appearance by Mr Comey at the Senate Intelligence Committee, which will be followed by a closed briefing to senators, will mark the first public comments by the former FBI chief since he was abruptly fired by Mr Trump on May 9th.

His highly anticipated opening statement, and subsequent questioning by senators on the committee, promises to dramatically up the stakes in the controversy - particularly if there are allegations of obstruction of justice by the president.

While initially the White House argued that the decision to dismiss Mr Comey was linked to Mr Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email scandal, citing a memo prepared by deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, Mr Trump later suggested that "that Russian thing" was also a reason for his move.

A special counsel, Robert Mueller, has since been appointed to lead the investigation into Russian meddling in the US election.

Twenty-four hours before Mr Comey’s appearance on Capitol Hill, Mr Trump surprised observers by announcing his nominee for Mr Comey’s replacement at the FBI.

‘Impeccable credentials’

Mr Trump announced the nomination of Christopher Wray - a former prosecutor who served in the Department of Justice under George W Bush - on Twitter, describing him as a man of “impeccable credentials”. His nomination must be confirmed by the Senate.

As speculation mounted about whether the US president would respond to the Comey hearing on Thursday through Twitter or other routes, Mr Trump headed to Cincinnati in Ohio on Wednesday to publicise plans for his investment strategy.

Fresh reports also emerged ahead of the Comey hearing that attorney general Jeff Sessions offered to resign as the Department of Justice's top official, in response to the president's frustration that he rescinded himself from all investigations into Russia following confirmation that he did not disclose certain meetings with Russian officials during his senate confirmation hearing.

On Wednesday, top US intelligence officials testified before the committee, including director of national intelligence Daniel Coats.

Mr Coats declined to comment on a Washington Post report that he told associates the US president had asked him to try and persuade FBI director James Comey to pull back from the bureau’s focus on former national security chief Mike Flynn.

Ongoing investigation

He said he had “never felt pressure to intervene or interfere in any way.. in an ongoing investigation”.

Asked about the specific Washington Post report, he said: “I don’t believe it’s appropriate for me to address that in a public session. I don’t think this is the appropriate venue to do this in.’’

Meanwhile, the former head of US National Intelligence, James Clapper, told an audience in Australia the Watergate scandal “pales” in comparison to the actions currently unfolding in Washington.

“I am very concerned about the assault on our institutions coming from both an external source, read Russia, and an internal source, the president himself,” he said.

He criticised the “egregious and inexcusable” manner in which Mr Comey was removed from office by Mr Trump, and said it was crucial the current investigations into Russia gets “to the bottom” of Russian interference in the election.

“Is there a smoking gun with all the smoke? I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “I think it is vital, though, that we find that out. In the interim I cannot explain this solicitousness with the Russians.”

Watergate comparisons

All eyes will be on Washington on Thursday when Mr Comey appears before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Already his appearance has stoked comparisons with the Watergate hearings, during which the American public became transfixed with the deepening scandal surrounding Richard Nixon.

Articulate and confident, Mr Comey (56), is someone who is not shy of the limelight, controversially holding a press conference last July, during the presidential election campaign, on Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was US secretary of state.

This will be his first public appearance since he was fired by Mr Trump last month. But how far Mr Comey will go in his public testimony – he will also be questioned by senators in a private hearing – remains unclear.

Key questions to watch for

Did Donald Trump press Comey to halt the investigation into former national security adviser Mike Flynn? Such pressure is what was applied at a meeting in February, according to a written memo of it recorded by Comey immediately afterwards, according to several reports. If Comey was to confirm this under oath, this could prove that the US president sought to obstruct an investigation.

Did Comey assure Trump he was not under FBI investigation? Trump has repeatedly said he was told by Comey he personally was not under investigation – rather it was individuals involved in his campaign team.

Republican senators are likely to ask Comey why he did not take action earlier if he was concerned about meetings and conversations he had with the US president.

He is also likely to face questions about “unmasking” – how names of individuals caught up in the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the US election emerged into the public domain.

While much of the hearing is likely to focus on the FBI investigation, Comey’s handling of the Clinton email scandal is likely to surface. This, ostensibly, was the reason Trump fired him, according to a memo written by deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent