WASHINGTON, D.C. -- President Trump denied any attempt to obstruct an FBI investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn on Sunday, while lawmakers said the president's own comments raised new questions about him and the probe into Russians who interfered in last year's presidential election.
During a weekend-long series of tweets following Flynn's guilty plea for lying to the FBI, Trump attacked the FBI in general and former director James Comey over different aspects of the Russia investigation, including Flynn's role.
"I never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn," Trump tweeted. "Just more Fake News covering another Comey lie!"
I never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn. Just more Fake News covering another Comey lie!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2017
Comey testified under oath to Congress after his dismissal that Trump asked him to go easy on Flynn.
Trump further complicated matters by tweeting that he knew Flynn had lied to the FBI when he fired him. Lawmakers said that raises a possible obstruction of justice claim, given Comey's statement that Trump had asked him to drop the Flynn investigation.
"I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!" the tweet read.
I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 2, 2017
That would mean that, if Trump did ask Comey to drop the Flynn investigation, he did so knowing that his former aide had lied to the FBI.
While Trump denied pressuring Comey, one of his lawyers said he drafted the tweet in question and made a mistake. Attorney John Dowd told USA TODAY that Trump did not know for sure Flynn had lied to the FBI, only that the Justice Department had raised questions about his comments regarding his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
"The point of that tweet was entirely correct," Dowd said, adding that Flynn did not need to lie about his talks with Kislyak.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN he believes Comey's testimony under oath that Trump asked him to back off Flynn.
“This president has been obsessed with this investigation, always saying there's nothing there," Warner told CNN's State of the Union. "But, each week, another shoe drops, where we see more evidence of continuing outreach from Russians and some response from the Trump campaign and Trump individuals."
The back-and-forth capped a weekend that began when special counsel Robert Mueller’s team announced it had reached a deal with Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with Kislyakand has agreed to cooperate with the investigation.
As lawmakers wondered if Flynn would implicate Trump or his top aides, Trump spent the weekend denying any election-year collusion with Russia, and attacking Flynn, Comey, and the FBI investigation in general.
Trump also raged about another investigation development — the disclosure by Mueller's office that it had removed an agent amid a review of email exchanges with a colleague that were critical of Trump.
Noting that the agent, Peter Strzok, had also helped run the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, Trump suggested in one tweet that the FBI had a vendetta against him.
"Now it all starts to make sense!" he said.
Report: “ANTI-TRUMP FBI AGENT LED CLINTON EMAIL PROBE” Now it all starts to make sense!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2017
As for the FBI in general, Trump said: "After years of Comey, with the phony and dishonest Clinton investigation (and more), running the FBI, its reputation is in Tatters - worst in History! But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness."
After years of Comey, with the phony and dishonest Clinton investigation (and more), running the FBI, its reputation is in Tatters - worst in History! But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2017
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told NBC's Meet the Press she believes Trump fired Comey because the FBI director "did not agree to lift the cloud of the Russia investigation — that’s obstruction of justice."
Others called that assessment premature.
Michael Mukasey, an attorney general under Republican President George W. Bush, noted to ABC News that Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, a relatively minor charge that has nothing to do with Russia election collusion.
"A lot of the heavy breathing and a lot of the speculation" surrounding the Flynn guilty plea "is completely unwarranted," Mukasey told ABC's This Week.
Other analysts said Mueller allowed Flynn to plead to a lesser charge in exchange for his cooperation. The special counsel's investigation centers on Russia's efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election by hacking Democratic Party emails and pushing fake news about Trump opponent Hillary Clinton.
Legal documents filed by Mueller's office said a senior member of the Trump transition team asked Flynn to reach out to officials from other countries, including Russia, about a United Nations resolution condemning Israel.
There is also evidence that Trump officials knew that Flynn would speak to the Russians about sanctions the Obama administration put on Russia over its election interference.
The New York Times reported that Trump aide K.T. McFarland wrote in an internal email that the Obama team imposed the sanctions to discredit Trump's election victory and make it harder to ease tensions with Russia because it "has just thrown the U.S.A. election to him."
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told ABC's This Week that Flynn "was acting with the knowledge and at the direction of people who were senior members of the transition team," perhaps even the president himself.
"The more that (Trump) was involved in directing this, in being knowledgeable of it," Schiff said, "I think the stronger the potential case of obstruction becomes.”