The White House on Tuesday confronted what could be the most serious allegation to date against President Trump — reports that in February he asked the FBI director, James B. Comey, to drop an investigation of the president’s former national security advisor.
Comey, who was fired by Trump last week, wrote a memo shortly after the Oval Office encounter on Feb. 14 to make a record of Trump’s words, according to a close associate of his who had read the document and described it in an interview.
Comey wrote several other memos describing encounters with Trump that he found troubling, the associate said.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump told Comey, referring to the FBI investigation of Michael Flynn, according to the memo. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
The existence of the memos was first reported by the New York Times.
The meeting between Trump and Comey took place one day after Flynn was fired as national security advisor. At the time, White House officials said the president had dismissed Flynn because he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
“While the president has repeatedly expressed his view that Gen. Flynn is a decent man who served and protected our country, the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation,” the statement said.
The report on the Trump-Comey meeting raised serious questions about potential presidential interference in a criminal investigation. It prompted several Republicans to demand that Comey testify to Congress and seemed certain to complicate Trump’s efforts to pick a new head of the FBI or push major elements of his legislative agenda.
Tuesday night, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, sent a letter to the FBI demanding that all memorandums, notes and recordings between Trump and Comey be delivered to his panel by next week.
“I have my subpoena pen ready” if necessary, he said.
The news broke even as White House officials were still trying to grapple with another Russia-related controversy that had erupted the day before.
That involved Trump’s decision to share information with two Russian diplomats during an Oval Office meeting last week. On Monday, the Washington Post and the New York Times reported that Trump had disclosed highly classified information to the two Russians that a U.S. ally had provided on condition that it not be shared.
The White House had denied the accuracy of those news reports.
But on Twitter on Tuesday morning, Trump said he had, in fact, shared information with the two Russians, Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He said he had an “absolute right” as president to do so.
His tweets, which confirmed much of the information in the stories, undermined the carefully crafted denials his aides had offered the day before.
The back-to-back controversies hit the White House as it was still trying to contain the damage from last week’s unexpected firing of Comey.
And it all happened just days before Trump was scheduled to leave for his first overseas trip as president, an eight-day journey through the Mideast and Europe that already posed numerous potential problems for the administration.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who conducted his briefing for reporters off-camera on Tuesday, brushed off a question about whether Trump, amid the furors, has been able to adequately prepare for meetings with foreign leaders. Trump, however, several times on Tuesday mispronounced the last name of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with whom he was meeting.
The new report on Trump’s February meeting with Comey added to the intense scrutiny over the president’s decision to fire the FBI director and raised the legal and political exposure for the administration.
The FBI since last summer has been investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and potential collusion by the Trump campaign — an investigation that Trump days ago decried as a waste of taxpayers’ money.
White House officials began Tuesday by struggling to reconcile their earlier denials that Trump had disclosed classified information to the Russian officials with the president’s own acknowledgment that he’d done so.
“It is wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is to the advancement of the security of the American people,” national security advisor H.R. McMaster told reporters.
He denied that Trump’s discussions with the Russians had endangered cooperation with the source of the intelligence, a U.S. ally, which the New York Times identified as Israel. .
McMaster said that Trump’s disclosure to the Russians was impromptu, not the sort of scripted talking point more typical of such diplomatic exchanges. He said the president was unaware of the source of the intelligence he shared. McMaster confirmed that the intelligence involved an Islamic State plot to use laptop computers as explosive devices aboard commercial aircraft.
McMaster also confirmed reports that after Trump’s meetings with the two Russians, the president’s counter-terrorism advisor, Thomas Bossert, was concerned enough by Trump’s disclosure to alert the National Security Agency and the CIA — “maybe from an overabundance of precaution,” McMaster said.
McMaster said he was “not concerned at all” that Trump’s disclosure had compromised intelligence-sharing relationships with allies. He said the details Trump discussed with the Russians were considered within the bounds of “what the expectations are of our intelligence partners.”
Trump himself, in brief public comments during a joint appearance with Erdogan at the White House, suggested that his “very, very successful meeting” with the Russians had been intended to enlist their help in battling Islamic State in Syria. “Our fight is against ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the militant group.
To date, however, Russia’s military efforts in Syria have been in support of the government of President Bashar Assad and against Syrian rebels fighting it, not in alliance with the U.S.-backed campaign against Islamic State.
Administration officials sought to turn reporters’ attention to the leaks about Trump’s interactions with the Russians, as well as past leaks about the president’s conversations with foreign officials. Spicer described the leaks as a danger to national security.
Although many Republicans continued to stand with Trump, a growing number of members of Congress in both parties expressed impatience with the White House responses to the controversies piling up.
With work on Trump’s legislative agenda all but halted, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a television interview, “We could do with a little less drama from the White House.”
Sen. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, peevishly suggested that White House officials had failed to respond to his requests for information about the Trump meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak.
“I’d like to think somebody from the White House who was in the room is going to get on the phone and tell me what they said,” Burr told reporters. “I’ve been trying to get it [phone call] all morning. Maybe they’re busy.”
Some Republican lawmakers also called for Comey to testify and said they were dismayed by Trump’s reported request to end the Flynn investigation.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican in a swing district, said that if the allegations about Trump’s conversations with Comey were true, “it would be deeply, deeply troubling, disconcerting, and it would open a new chapter of scandal.”
Democrats stepped up calls for independent investigations as well as for a special prosecutor.
“On a day when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, they have,” said Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York.
Republican veterans of past administrations expressed exasperation at the latest series of White House crises.
“He has to exercise more discipline,” Andrew Card, who was chief of staff to President George W. Bush, said on MSNBC.
“Taste your words before you spit them out,” he added, as if advising Trump directly. “Show more respect to that bureaucracy that exists, not just in the White House but throughout the executive branch.”
As Trump’s aides responded to the latest controversies, the White House took on the air of a place under siege. Aides scrambled to respond even as their jobs were widely reported to be in jeopardy. Anonymous sources described to reporters a president seething in frustration at the negative publicity and his staff’s inability to contain it, though Trump’s actions and words were — as so often is the case -- the spark for the controversies.
“You have people that try to cause problems,” one administration official said, referring to leakers within the government. “Sometimes we get in our own way.”
Times staff writers David Lauter, Lisa Mascaro and Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report.