WASHINGTON — Shortly after President Trump allegedly pressed then-FBI Director James Comey to shut down the federal inquiry into national security adviser Michael Flynn in February, Comey went to Attorney General Jeff Sessions to express his uneasiness about the president’s direct contact with him about such matters, according to a person familiar with his actions.
Comey, who was running the FBI's probe into possible collusion between Trump associates and Russia during the presidential campaign, sought to enlist the attorney general’s help in shielding the agency from such contacts, said the person who is not authorized to comment publicly.
Sessions was unable to provide the assurances the FBI director sought at the time – namely that Trump would not seek to address Comey or the agency directly as it continued the Russia probe, the person said. Contacts between the White House and the FBI are by rule routed through the attorney general or deputy attorney general so as to avoid even the appearance of undue influence.
The development, first reported by the New York Times, comes as Comey prepares to testify Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee about a series of communications with the president that so alarmed him that he memorialized the encounters in detailed written memos.
In that testimony, according to the person familiar with Comey’s preparations, the former director also intends to refute Trump’s previous assertions that Comey assured him three times that the president was not a subject of the FBI’s wide-ranging investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, who sought to influence the election by hacking Democratic political organizations.
The Justice Department declined to comment late Tuesday on Comey’s reported contact with Sessions.
The White House has repeatedly denied that Trump tried to press Comey to end the investigation into Flynn or otherwise impeded the Russia investigation. Yet in a separate disclosure Tuesday night, The Washington Post reported Trump sought counsel from Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats about whether he could intervene with Comey to get the bureau to lay off its inquiry into Flynn.
Coats, who had been confirmed just one week earlier, reportedly discussed the conversation with other officials and decided such an intervention would be inappropriate, the Post reported. USA TODAY could not immediately verify that report.
Comey’s communications with the attorney general raises new questions about Sessions’ role last month in recommending the former FBI director be dismissed in the midst of the Russia inquiry.
Trump abruptly fired Comey May 9 and has yet to nominate a replacement. Sessions participated in the decision to fire Comey, despite having recused himself from any matters related to the Russia investigation because of his own previously unreported contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Oversight of the Russia probe was left with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who last month appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to lead the inquiry as the Justice Department’s special counsel.
In a memo prepared for Trump’s consideration, Rosenstein cited Comey’s disputed handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of State as grounds for his dismissal.
Yet Trump days later told NBC in an interview that the Russia investigation was indeed on his mind when he made the decision to fire Comey. "In fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won,'" Trump said.
The recusal, and appointment of special counsel, caught the White House by surprise – and were reported to deepen tensions between Trump and his longtime backer Sessions. On Tuesday, just hours after White House spokesman Sean Spicer would not say whether Trump had confidence in his attorney general, the Justice Department also was confronted with reports Tuesday that Sessions had at one point offered his resignation. Justice spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores declined to comment Tuesday.
On Thursday, all eyes will be on Comey for his side of the story. In the days since Comey's Senate appearance was announced, the person familiar with the former director's account, said Comey has been preparing for his testimony relatively alone, with input from only a few confidants.
Comey has retained a lawyer, the source said, but added that the arrangement was just a precaution, as Comey did not feel vulnerable to any legal jeopardy related to his testimony.
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