President Donald Trump expressed concerns about the judgment of his national security adviser Michael Flynn weeks before forcing him to resign, according to memos kept by former FBI director James Comey that recount in detail efforts by Trump to influence the bureau’s expanding investigation of Russia.
The memos also reveal the extent of Trump’s preoccupation with unproven allegations that he had consorted with prostitutes while in Moscow in 2013. Trump, according to the memos, repeatedly denied the allegations and prodded Comey to help disprove them, while also recalling being told by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia has the most beautiful prostitutes.
The details were disclosed Thursday as the Justice Department released redacted versions of memos – some of which contained previously classified material – that Comey composed in the immediate aftermath of his interactions with Trump, a step he says he took because he was troubled by their conversations and worried that the president might one day lie about them.
The documents, first published by the Associated Press, provide a significantly more detailed account of those conversations than has previously been revealed through Comey’s contemporaneous records and are largely consistent with his statements before Congress and in his newly published memoir.
In a Jan. 28, 2017, memo, Comey said Trump blamed Flynn for botching the scheduling of a phone call with British Prime Minister Theresa May. “In telling the story, the President pointed his fingers at his head and said, ‘the guy has serious judgment issues,’ ” Comey wrote. Comey said he did not comment at the time.
Trump has disputed Comey’s accounts of their conversations.
On Thursday night, Trump tweeted: “James Comey Memos just out and show clearly that there was NO COLLUSION and NO OBSTRUCTION. Also, he leaked classified information. WOW! Will the Witch Hunt continue?”
Flynn, who was forced out in the early days of the administration, has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller III’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In early February, Comey met with then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who asked the FBI director “if this was a ‘private conversation.’ I replied that it was,” Comey recounted in one memo.
Priebus then asked if the bureau was wiretapping Flynn, according to the memo.
“I paused for a few seconds and then said that I would answer here, but that this illustrated the kind of question that had to be asked and answered through established channels,” Comey recounted. “I explained that it was important that communication about any particular case go through that channel to protect us and to protect the (White House) from any accusations of improper influence. He said he understood.”
After that discussion, Priebus brought Comey to speak with the president, where Trump raised the issue of Comey’s deputy, Andrew McCabe, who had been criticized by Trump during the campaign because McCabe’s wife had previously run as a Democrat for a seat in the Virginia state legislature; she had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from then-Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, a close ally of Hillary Clinton’s.
Comey told the president that if McCabe “had it to do over again, I’m sure he would urge his wife not to run, but that the guy put everything aside and did his job well,” according to the memo.
Comey’s memo of his Feb. 14, 2017, discussion with Trump also includes a previously unknown exchange about trying to prevent leaks.
At the time, the president was upset that transcripts of his phone conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia had appeared in The Washington Post.
Comey said he told the president, “I was eager to find leakers and would like to nail one to the door as a message. I said something about it being difficult and he replied that we need to go after the reporters, and referred to the fact that 10 or 15 years ago we put them in jail to find out what they know, and it worked.”
Comey said he replied: “I was a fan of pursuing leaks aggressively but that going after reporters was tricky, for legal reasons and because (the Justice Department) tends to approach it conservatively. He replied by telling me to talk to (Attorney General Jeff) Sessions and see what we can do about being more aggressive.”
“I said something about the value of putting a head on a pike as a message,” Comey said. “He replied by saying it may involve putting reporters in jail. ‘They spend a couple days in jail, make a new friend, they are ready to talk.’ I laughed as I walked to the door Reince Priebus had opened.”
In a February 8, 2017, memo, Comey recounted how the president denied an allegation raised in a dossier written by a former British spy that he consorted with prostitutes in Moscow, but he also claimed that Putin had told him “we have some of the most beautiful hookers in the world.”
The Justice Department sent redacted copies of the memos to Congress on Thursday, and unredacted versions will be made available for members of three House committees to review on Friday in a secure facility on Capitol Hill.
The delivery of the memos was in response to an April 13 request by the GOP chairmen of the House Judiciary, Intelligence, and Oversight and Government Reform committees for access to them.
The department had earlier allowed certain members to review, but not retain, the memos as long as they agreed not to disclose their contents.
“In light of the unusual events occurring since the previous limited disclosure, the department has consulted the relevant parties and concluded that the release of the memoranda to Congress at this time would not adversely impact any ongoing investigation or other confidentiality interests of the executive branch,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote in a letter Thursday evening to the three chairmen.
The three Republicans – House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes, R-Calif., – issued a joint statement saying the memos reveal Comey as a petty person with a grudge against Trump.
The memos “lay bare the notion that former Director Comey is not motivated by animus,” the lawmakers said. “He was willing to work for someone he deemed morally unsuited for office, capable of lying, requiring of personal loyalty, worthy of impeachment, and sharing the traits of a mob boss. Former Director Comey was willing to overlook all of the aforementioned characteristics in order to keep his job. In his eyes, the real crime was his own firing.”
Last week, the three had pressed for access to the memos as part of their inquiry into the FBI’s handling of an investigation into then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
On Wednesday, Goodlatte served notice of his intent to subpoena the memos.
Comey headed the investigation begun in July 2016 into whether there was any coordination between Trump associates and Russian officials during the 2016 presidential election. Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Trump sought a promise of loyalty from Comey during a private dinner, according to Comey, who memorialized that in a memo.
In February 2017, Comey said, Trump asked him in an Oval Office meeting if he “can see your way clear” to dropping the investigation into Flynn, who had been forced to resign as national security adviser after it became public that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The two men had discussed during the transition the possibility of lifting Obama administration sanctions imposed on Russia.
In May 2017, Trump fired Comey. Soon after, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was appointed to take over the Russia probe.
Comey wrote some of the memos as unclassified documents. Several others he wrote contained classified information and were kept in a secure facility. After he left office, he shared some of the unclassified memos with a friend, parts of which were then shared with a reporter for the New York Times. All of his memos were subsequently provided to Mueller.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Ellen Nakashima, Devlin Barrett