The White House was in crisis mode yet again Tuesday after reports emerged claiming that President Donald Trump asked former FBI Director James Comey to shut down an investigation into Trump’s ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia.
An administration statement said the reports aren’t true. But the claims raise new concerns that Trump was attempting to obstruct an investigation that Comey had been leading into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to influence the 2016 presidential election.
The reports said Trump made the request of Comey during a February meeting.
According to a memo that Comey wrote following the meeting, the president said, “I hope you can let this go,” referring to the investigation into Flynn. The details of Comey’s notes were first reported by The New York Times and then confirmed by The Washington Post and other news outlets.
But a statement from the White House said the report is “not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey.” It said while the president has repeatedly expressed his view that Flynn is a “decent man,” he never asked Comey or anyone else to end any investigations involving the national security adviser.
Flynn’s resignation came hours after it was reported that the Justice Department had warned the White House weeks earlier that Flynn could be vulnerable to blackmail for his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Trump took office on January 20.
Trump abruptly fired Comey last week, creating a firestorm of political controversy and increasing calls for a special prosecutor or independent commission to look into any Russia-Trump connections.
White House officials have stressed that the Russia probe had nothing to do with Trump’s firing of Comey, although Trump himself has suggested in interviews that it was at least partly a motivation.
The Times said Comey’s memo was part of a “paper trail” that the FBI director kept to document allegedly “improper” pressure by Trump in the FBI’s Russia investigation, raising the possibility of a paper trail of evidence.
Colleagues of Comey have said the former FBI director took careful notes of meetings, especially politically sensitive ones, and there had been rumors for weeks that such memos existed.
A spokeswoman for the FBI declined to comment on the details of the Comey memo.
Reaction from Congress
As the latest reports surfaced Tuesday, reaction from lawmakers in both parties was swift, with intensifying calls for Comey to testify before Congress.
“I would like to see that,” Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a high-ranking Republican congresswoman, said of Comey testifying.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters that he’s asked Comey “to come before the Judiciary Committee to tell his side of the story.”
Comey turned down a recent request to testify in a closed session, but reports have suggested that he would do so if the hearing were public.
Congressman Jason Chaffetz, a prominent Republican who heads the House Oversight Committee, said in a tweet that he “is going to get the Comey memo, if it exists. I need to see it sooner rather than later. I have my subpoena pen ready.”
On the floor of the Senate, Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said he was “shaken” by reports that Trump tried to shut down an active investigation. “The country is being tested in unprecedented ways … history is watching,” Schumer said.
Any movement on an independent investigation depends upon the votes of House Republicans. With a year-and a-half still to go until 2018 midterm elections, many members of Congress are carefully watching polling numbers for Trump back in their home congressional districts.
“The people who did vote for him continue to support him,” Congressman Trent Franks of the conservative House Freedom Caucus said Tuesday.
Franks said the media is looking at Trump in the most negative way possible, while voters “just look at the big picture and say, well who is really fighting for America here — and I think they’ve concluded, rightfully, that that’s Donald Trump.”
Seeking independent investigation
But for House Democrats, the revelations are just the newest reason on a long list that should move Congress to pass legislation creating an independent investigation into Russian election interference.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted, “If reports are true, Trump’s attempts to shut down the FBI’s Flynn investigation is an assault on the rule of law.”
There already have been calls for Trump to turn over records of any conversations with Comey. That was especially the case after Trump, in a tweet earlier this week, appeared to threaten Comey into silence by saying Comey better hope there are no “tapes” of their conversations.
VOA’s Michael Bowman and Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.