Trump’s attempt to intimidate Comey could come back to haunt him

The president isn’t doing himself any favors.

Trump shakes Comey’s hand on January 22 — less than a week before the failed “loyalty dinner.” CREDIT: AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Trump shakes Comey’s hand on January 22 — less than a week before the failed “loyalty dinner.” CREDIT: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

On Friday morning, President Trump fired off a tweet suggesting he may have recorded the conversations he had with former FBI Director James Comey and threatened to release them if Comey spoke out.

This could be viewed as an effort to intimidate Comey, a potential witness in an investigation into Trump and his campaign.

The tweet comes the morning after the New York Times reported that Trump sought a loyalty pledge from Comey during a private dinner that happened on January 27 — the day after acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed White House Counsel Donald McGahn about the FBI’s determination that then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was misleading people about his communications with Russian officials and might be vulnerable to blackmail.

“As they ate, the president and Mr. Comey made small talk about the election and the crowd sizes at Mr. Trump’s rallies,” the Times reports. “The president then turned the conversation to whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him.”

Comey wouldn’t give that assurance, according to the account of the dinner provided by Comey associates the Times spoke with. Those associates felt comfortable going public with the story following Trump’s decision to fire Comey on Tuesday evening, amid an escalating FBI investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russia.

Trump, unsatisfied with Comey’s initial response, returned to the topic later during the dinner. From the Times:

Later in the dinner, Mr. Trump again said to Mr. Comey that he needed his loyalty.

Mr. Comey again replied that he would give him “honesty” and did not pledge his loyalty, according to the account of the conversation.

But Mr. Trump pressed him on whether it would be “honest loyalty.”

“You will have that,” Mr. Comey told his associates he responded.

When that exchange occurred, Trump already knew about the FBI’s concerns that Flynn had been compromised. The account Flynn provided to the FBI on January 24 about his pre-inauguration communications with the Russian ambassador contradicted what the FBI independently knew about those communications thanks to incidental collection. Yates first briefed McGahn about Flynn’s FBI interview the day before Comey’s dinner with Trump, and McGahn briefed Trump that same day.

Trump’s veiled Friday morning threat to Comey — coming amid an active investigation into the Trump’s campaigns connections with Russia — might constitute witness intimidation, according to Norm Eisen, former chief ethics counsel for President Obama.

During a CNN appearance later Friday, Eisen said that Trump’s reported loyalty demand “smacks of obstruction.”

“And then the firing of Comey is just the final act,” Eisen added. “It does raise a very serious question, whether the president’s intent was to subvert the investigation.”

The Times’ report of the Trump-Comey dinner came on the same day Trump admitted to calling Comey and asking him if he’s under investigation — a major departure from the story the White House had previously been telling about the chain of events that culminated in Comey’s firing.

“I actually asked him, yes,” Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt. “I said, ‘If it’s possible, will you let me know, am I under investigation?’ He said, ‘You are not under investigation.’”

Trump also indicated Comey wanted to keep his job and told him as much during a dinner that happened at the former FBI director’s request.

“He wanted to stay on,” Trump said. “He wanted to stay on as the FBI head, and I said, ‘I’ll consider — we’ll see what happens.’”

But on Thursday, an NBC report citing one current and one former FBI official close to Comey contradicted the president’s recollection of that dinner, which appears to be the same one detailed by the Times.

“The January dinner meeting between the two men, the sources said, was requested by the White House,” NBC reported. “And the former senior FBI official said Comey would never have told the president he was not under investigation — also contradicting what Trump said.”

Since the Justice Department ultimately reports to Trump, criminal charges are extremely unlikely. But the attempt to intimidate Comey could add fuel to an impeachment fire that Trump himself fanned on Thursday by admitting his decision to fire Comey as based, at least in part, on Comey’s decision to pursue an investigation into potential collusion between his campaign and Russia.

During the Holt interview, Trump characterized Comey as “a showboat” and “a grandstander.” On Wednesday, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed morale was low at the FBI — a claim that was quickly contradicted by the acting FBI director during congressional testimony on Thursday.

The Times’ report isn’t the first to link Comey’s firing to Trump’s concerns about his loyalty and heightening interest in the Russia investigation. On Wednesday, CNN’s Jake Tapper reported that in addition to “the fact that the FBI’s investigation into possible Trump team collusion with Russia in the 2016 election was accelerating,” the other major reason Trump axed Comey was because he “never provided the president with any assurance of personal loyalty.”

On Wednesday, the The New York Times reported that Comey was fired shortly after asking the Justice Department “for a significant increase in money and personnel for the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions played a role in Trump’s decision to fire Comey, despite promising to recuse himself from any Russia-Trump campaign-related investigations after his own false statements about communications with Russian officials came to light.