Former FBI Director James B. Comey feared from their first meeting that President Trump was trying to forge a "patronage relationship" between the two of them and was intruding on the "FBI's role as an independent investigative agency," he plans to tell Congress.
In testimony released a day before he is to appear Thursday at a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey recounts Trump's demand for "loyalty" and his request that the bureau drop at least part of its investigation of former national security advisor Michael Flynn.
Comey draws no legal conclusions in his statement and does not accuse Trump of seeking to obstruct justice. His detailed account of awkward and often tense conversations over four months, however, provides evidence that he thought the president was attempting to inappropriately intercede on behalf of Flynn and influence the FBI's investigation into whether any associates of Trump's were involved in Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.The testimony could mark a milestone in the Russia case, which has stymied the Trump administration since his first days in office.
Trump's ability to weather the investigation politically depends to a large degree on his support among Republicans, who control both houses of Congress. So far, GOP leaders have largely stood with Trump, reflecting the views of most Republican voters.
Whether that continues depends heavily on the investigation being led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is only now getting started.
In the meantime, public opinion could be shaped by Thursday's testimony. Until now the main allegations in the investigation have been leveled by anonymous officials speaking to reporters and have involved people associated with Trump, not the president himself.
The hearing, by contrast — which will feature a clearly identified, prominent law enforcement official on national television describing possible wrongdoing by Trump — could shift that dynamic.
The Senate committee released Comey's statement shortly after the end of a contentious hearing Wednesday during which two senior intelligence officials repeatedly refused to answer questions about whether Trump had asked them to intervene with the FBI to try to impede or alter the investigation.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers denied feeling "pressured" or "directed" to intervene, but pointedly refused to say whether Trump had asked them to do so.
They left unclear what their legal basis was for declining to answer — at one point Coats said, "I'm not sure I have a legal basis" — and their lack of answers drew angry responses from senators of both parties.
"Before we adjourn, I would ask each of you to take a message back to the administration," Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.) admonished both men at the end of the hearing. "At no time should you be in a position where you come to Congress without an answer."
The Comey testimony before the same panel is likely to deepen the political risk for Trump and perhaps the legal jeopardy as well. Some legal experts said that Comey's claim that the president may have sought to close down the Flynn investigation provides strong evidence that Trump may have attempted to obstruct justice, a federal crime.
Federal law defines the crime as any effort to "corruptly" seek to "obstruct or impede" the "due and proper administration of the law."
"If Comey is right — and the president was asking him to drop the investigation — we have an increasingly strong case of obstruction," Jennifer Daskal, a law professor at American University, said Wednesday.
"After all, if a president asking his top law enforcement official to halt an investigation isn't an effort to impede, I don't what is."
Democrats seized on the disclosures, but most stopped short of talking of criminal charges or impeachment, saying that more time was needed for the congressional investigations and for Mueller to conduct his inquiry.
"This president was engaged in pressuring the head of the FBI when it came to a criminal investigation. That's pretty serious," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.
"It's hard to imagine that a man can become president of the United States and not understand the most basic — basic — rules of criminal law and investigations."
Republicans loyal to Trump tried to play down the impact.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor, said on MSNBC that Trump's comments to Comey were "normal New York City conversation" and that the president didn't realize his remarks were inappropriate.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said he was "not going to prejudge any of this.... Let these investigations go where the facts take them and then let's make some judgments."
Others noted that Comey confirmed in his statement something that Trump had asserted — that the former FBI chief had told him he was not a target of the bureau's investigation.
"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," Trump's lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, said in a brief statement. "The president feels completely and totally vindicated."
According to the testimony, Comey several times told Trump that he was not personally the target of the investigation. But, Comey adds, he was reluctant to say so publicly because, among other reasons, that would "create a duty to correct, should that change."
Trump fired Comey last month, revealing later that "this Russia thing" had been on his mind when he did so. He later derided the FBI director as "crazy, a nut job" to Russia's foreign minister and its ambassador during a private meeting in the Oval Office, according to published reports that cited a leaked White House transcript. The White House has not denied those reports.
Comey's concerns about Trump's efforts to influence him began with their first meeting, at Trump Tower in January, before the inauguration. After that encounter, he says, he felt "compelled" to immediately write an account. He began it while sitting in an FBI vehicle "the moment [he] walked out of the meeting" — something he said he never thought he needed to do after his only two private talks with President Obama.
A couple of weeks later, on Friday, Jan. 27, Comey says, Trump called him at lunchtime and invited him to dinner that night in the White House. Comey says he had expected other people would be there, but it turned out to be just him and Trump, served by Navy stewards in the Green Room.
His startlingly detailed account depicts the president as applying a crude, street-corner type of pressure to make sure Comey was on his side.
Trump began by asking him whether he wanted to stay as FBI director. Comey says he found that request "strange" since Trump had already told him twice he hoped he would stay, but Trump went on to say that lots of people wanted the job.
Comey writes that he immediately got the sense that Trump wanted to create "some sort of patronage relationship." He adds, "That concerned me greatly, given the FBI's traditionally independent status in the executive branch."
At that meeting, Comey says, Trump told him, "I need loyalty, I expect loyalty."
"I didn't move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed," Comey recounts. "We simply looked at each other in silence."
Later, Comey told the president he could offer him "honesty," and Trump responded, "That's what I want, honest loyalty."
"I paused, and then said, 'You will get that from me,'" Comey recalls, noting that "it is possible we understood the phrase 'honest loyalty' differently."
Just over two weeks after their dinner, Comey says, he had a second meeting with Trump in the Oval Office. After telling Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions and several top White House officials to leave the office so that the two could talk privately, Trump told Comey that Flynn, whom he had fired the day before, "is 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. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go,'" Comey recounts.
"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 says. "I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign."
After Trump's requests to end the Flynn investigation, Comey decided not to inform any of his bosses in the Justice Department, including Sessions.
Comey says he talked to other top FBI officials. They decided there was no reason to tell Sessions, since they expected he would soon step aside from any matters related to the Russia investigation, which he did two weeks later. Likewise, they didn't tell then-acting Deputy Atty. Gen. Dana Boente, since they figured he would not be in that job for long.
They also agreed not to "infect" the investigation by telling the team running it.
But Comey did later meet with Sessions and "took the opportunity to implore" him to prevent any further direct communication between him and Trump, he said. Sessions did not answer.
Trump, however, contacted Comey by phone two more times, according to the testimony.
On March 30, Trump told him that the Russia investigation was "'a cloud' impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country," Comey recalls.
Trump went on to say that "he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia," Comey recounts.
The reference to prostitutes refers to a dossier that circulated in Washington late last year containing accounts of purported Russian intelligence material about Trump. The contents of the dossier have never been confirmed and are not believed to be the center of the FBI's investigation, but were clearly on Trump's mind in several conversations with Comey, the testimony indicates.
A week and a half later, on April 11, Trump called again.
He "asked what I had done about his request that I 'get out' that he is not personally under investigation," Comey said. Trump added, "I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing, you know."
"I did not reply or ask him what he meant by 'that thing,'" Comey says.
"That was the last time I spoke with President Trump."