No end to woes for Trump: Memo says President asked to halt probe

Mr James Comey is said to have created memos about every call and meeting he had with Mr Trump. Former national security adviser Mike Flynn was in trouble for lying about the nature of phone conversations he had with the Russian ambassador. Oversight
US President Donald Trump is now embroiled in a scandal that he had reportedly tried to influence or impede an FBI inquiry into his former national security adviser.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Mr James Comey is said to have created memos about every call and meeting he had with Mr Trump. Former national security adviser Mike Flynn was in trouble for lying about the nature of phone conversations he had with the Russian ambassador. Oversight
Mr James Comey is said to have created memos about every call and meeting he had with Mr Trump.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Mr James Comey is said to have created memos about every call and meeting he had with Mr Trump. Former national security adviser Mike Flynn was in trouble for lying about the nature of phone conversations he had with the Russian ambassador. Oversight
Former national security adviser Mike Flynn was in trouble for lying about the nature of phone conversations he had with the Russian ambassador.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Mr James Comey is said to have created memos about every call and meeting he had with Mr Trump. Former national security adviser Mike Flynn was in trouble for lying about the nature of phone conversations he had with the Russian ambassador. Oversight
Oversight committee chairman Jason Chaffetz has demanded that the FBI turn over all memos, recordings and notes of Trump-Comey discussions.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump asked then FBI director James Comey to shut down the federal investigation into Mr Trump's former national security adviser, Mr Michael Flynn, in an Oval Office meeting in February, according to a memo that Mr Comey wrote shortly after the meeting.

The revelation on Monday prompted Representative Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, to demand on Tuesday that the Federal Bureau of Investigation turn over all "memoranda, notes, summaries and recordings" of discussions between Mr Trump and Mr Comey.

Such documents, Mr Chaffetz said, would "raise questions as to whether the President attempted to influence or impede" the FBI.

The bombshell hit Wall Street and prompted concern on both sides of the political aisle in Congress yesterday. US stocks opened sharply lower, as investors braced themselves for their worst day in eight months. The dollar index also plummeted, erasing all of the gains inspired by Mr Trump's business-friendly stance after his November election victory.

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Republican Senator Ben Sasse said yesterday that "there's a lot here that's really scary", telling a conservative radio host: "It's obviously inappropriate for any president to be trying to interfere with an investigation."

House Speaker Paul Ryan said he still has full confidence in Mr Trump but that lawmakers must "follow the facts wherever they lead" as they investigate Russian meddling in the US election and possible ties to Mr Trump's campaign.

House Democrats Al Green and Maxine Waters urged Congress to impeach Mr Trump, but Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi pushed back, telling a CNN town hall: "What are the facts that you would make a case on?"

The memo that triggered the latest turmoil was part of a paper trail Mr Comey created, documenting what he perceived as the President's improper efforts to influence an ongoing investigation.

An FBI agent's contemporaneous notes are widely held up in court as credible evidence of conversations.

Mr Comey shared the existence of the memo with senior FBI officials and close associates, and the New York Times reported that one of Mr Comey's associates read parts of the memo to one of its reporters.

"I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go," Mr Trump told Mr Comey, according to the memo. "He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."

Mr Trump told Mr Comey that Mr Flynn had done nothing wrong, according to the memo. Mr Comey did not say anything about curtailing the investigation, only replying: "I agree he is a good guy."

In a statement, the White House denied the version of events in the memo. "While the President has repeatedly expressed his view that General 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, including any investigation involving Gen Flynn," the statement said. "This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the President and Mr Comey."

Mr Chaffetz's letter, sent to the acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, set a May 24 deadline for the internal documents to be delivered to the House committee. The Republican congressman was criticised in recent months for showing little of the appetite he had demonstrated in pursuing Mrs Hillary Clinton, in the investigations into Mr Trump's associates.

It is believed that Mr Comey created similar memos about every phone call and meeting he had with the President. Mr Trump fired Mr Comey last week, and the Trump administration has given multiple, conflicting accounts of the reasoning behind the dismissal.

During his discussion with Mr Comey, Mr Trump began by condemning leaks to the news media, saying Mr Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information, according to one of Mr Comey's associates.

NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG, REUTER


Disclosures 'could threaten foreign intel ties'


National security advisor, H.R. McMaster speaks during a White House press briefing in Washington, DC. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump's decision to disclose allegedly classified information to Russian officials could threaten vital foreign intelligence ties, testing key allies' confidence in the United States just days before the US leader heads to the Middle East and Europe.

In a series of tweets on Tuesday morning, Mr Trump defended sharing information on a threat by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) with Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting last week.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said the disclosures, reported first by the Washington Post, were "wholly appropriate".

But intelligence professionals disagreed.

"If America does not know how to behave in a trustworthy way, other states, not only Israel, will start sifting the information that they provide," Mr Mordechai Kedar, a retired lieutenant-colonel in Israeli military intelligence, said in an interview after a report emerged that Israel was the source of the information. "The Americans may find themselves receiving only paraphrases."

Although a US president can legally disclose classified information as he deems appropriate, doing so is typically a decision planned out in advance, with consideration of what should and should not be shared, and the benefits and risks in doing so.

Mr McMaster said Mr Trump made the decision to divulge information "in the context of the conversation", suggesting that no such deliberations took place.

MORE DISCRETION NEEDED

If America does not know how to behave in a trustworthy way, other states, not only Israel, will start sifting the information that they provide. The Americans may find themselves receiving only paraphrases.

MR MORDECHAI KEDAR, a retired lieutenant-colonel in Israeli military intelligence, after a report emerged that Israel was the source of the classified information US President Donald Trump passed on to Russian officials during a meeting at the White House.

Pressed further, he said Mr Trump had not been briefed on the source of the information.

Asked why officials who were present informed the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency about what the President said, Mr McMaster said that such a notice would have been done out of an "over-abundance of caution".

Those admissions are unlikely to reassure US allies or intelligence officers risking their lives in the field.

Mr Nicholas Dujmovic, who spent 26 years at the CIA and is the director of the intelligence studies programme at Catholic University of America in Washington, said: "If true, the story will indeed harm relations with US allies who are our closest intelligence partners and will now be wary of sharing their best secrets with us."

Another possible casualty would be clandestine human sources, who may "think twice before providing the US with privileged information", added Mr Dujmovic, who used to edit the daily intelligence report provided to presidents.

"Why take the risk of giving the Americans great intelligence if the president is going to reveal it?"

The uproar comes as Mr Trump prepares for his first overseas trip as president, with stops planned in Israel as well as Saudi Arabia, Italy and Belgium.

He will meet leaders whose nations are on the front lines of fighting ISIS and other extremists, seek to bolster efforts to rein in Iran's regional influence and discuss ways to end the war in Syria - all of which depend on close intelligence cooperation.

The US relies on a global network of intelligence-sharing partnerships. Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are key intelligence providers in the Middle East.

BLOOMBERG


Putin: Russia has record to show Trump didn't pass on secrets


Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev during their talks in Moscow. PHOTO: REUTERS

SOCHI (Russia) • Russian President Vladimir Putin said that US President Donald Trump had not passed on any secrets to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting in Washington last week, and that he could prove it.

Israel, which was the initial source of the intelligence that Mr Trump provided to Russia, weighed in on its intelligence relationship with the United States without mentioning the controversy directly.

Mr Putin's unusual quip on domestic politics in the US came on Wednesday during a news conference at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where he joked that Mr Lavrov was remiss for not passing on what he made clear he believed were non-existent secrets.

"I spoke to him (Lavrov) today," Mr Putin said with a smile. "I will be forced to issue him with a reprimand because he did not share these secrets with us. Not with me, nor with representatives of Russia's intelligence services. It was very bad of him."

On a more serious note, Mr Putin, who said Moscow rated Mr Lavrov's meeting with Mr Trump "highly", said Russia was ready to hand a transcript of Mr Trump's meeting with Mr Lavrov over to US lawmakers if that would help reassure them.

A Kremlin aide, Mr Yuri Ushakov, later told reporters that Moscow had in its possession a written record of the conversation, not an audio recording.

Complaining about what he said were signs of "political schizophrenia" in the US, Mr Putin said Mr Trump was not being allowed to do his job properly.

QUIP ON SECRETS

I spoke to him (Lavrov) today. I will be forced to issue him with a reprimand because he did not share these secrets with us. Not with me, nor with representatives of Russia's intelligence services. It was very bad of him.

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, joking that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was remiss for not passing on what he made clear he believed were non-existent secrets.

"It is hard to imagine what else these people who generate such nonsense and rubbish can dream up next," he said. "What surprises me is that they are shaking up the domestic political situation using anti-Russian slogans.

"Either they don't understand the damage they are doing to their own country, in which case they are simply stupid, or they understand everything, in which case they are dangerous and corrupt."

Russia has repeatedly said that anti-Russian politicians in the US are using groundless fears of closer ties with Moscow to sabotage any rapprochement and damage Mr Trump in the process.

In Jerusalem, a spokesman for the Premier's office said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr Trump spoke by phone on Tuesday, emphasising that they discussed only Mr Trump's trip to Israel next week.

But as the news emerged that Israel was the initial source of the intelligence provided to Russia, other Israeli officials spoke of their commitment to continuing security cooperation between their country and Washington.

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said security ties would continue to be "unprecedented". "The security relationship between Israel and our greatest ally the United States is deep, significant and unprecedented in volume," Mr Lieberman wrote on Twitter.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE


Oval Office meeting that spiralled into White House crisis


US President Donald J. Trump (right) speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting at the White House in Washington, DC. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's visit to Moscow, the first by a senior Trump administration official to the Russian capital, was weighed down with baggage. Like his President, Mr Tillerson was under scrutiny for his past ties to Russia.

As the CEO of ExxonMobil, Mr Tillerson had extensive dealings with the Kremlin, including with President Vladimir Putin, who had personally awarded him Russia's Order of Friendship. But ever since he took office, the anticipated "reset" with Moscow had failed to happen.

Sanctions had not been lifted, and six days before Mr Tillerson arrived, on April 6, the US had launched a missile strike on a Syrian air base, suspected of being the launch pad for a chemical weapons attack, and where Russian troops were stationed.

Though Mr Tillerson was granted an audience with Mr Putin only late in the day, the meeting was described by the Secretary of State as "productive" despite "a low level of trust between our two countries".

What that meeting did produce was an ill-fated reciprocal visit on May 10 by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. It would have been normal for a Russian foreign minister to meet the US President. But these were not normal times. The night before, Mr Trump had fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey, at a time when the bureau was investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Having the first public meeting, within hours of such an extraordinary move, with a senior Russian official reflected a complete lack of concern of how it would look, irrespective of its substance.

But US officials pointed to Mr Tillerson's Kremlin meeting and the need for reciprocity. But that did not explain the presence of Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who had become a central figure in the Russia probe. His contacts with Mr Trump's first national security adviser Michael Flynn had ultimately led Mr Flynn to resign.

Mr Flynn's successor, General H.R. McMaster, his deputy Dina Powell and Mr Tillerson were also at the Oval Office meeting. US press were barred but not their Russian counterparts, it transpired.

Russian state agency Tass quickly posted pictures that have since become infamous, of Mr Trump, Mr Lavrov and Mr Kislyak smiling and apparently sharing jokes, at a time when Russia had been accused by US intelligence of interfering in last year's US election and the May 7 French presidential election as well. White House officials would later claim they did not know Mr Lavrov's official photographer was also working for Tass.

As soon as the pictures emerged, former intelligence officials raised concerns that Russians had been allowed into the Oval Office with electronic equipment, potentially making it vulnerable to bugs.

As it turned out, it was what Mr Trump voluntarily shared with the Russians that would cause the real storm.

On Monday evening, the Washington Post reported that Mr Trump had discussed highly secret information that had been provided by the intelligence agency of a US ally about an ISIS terrorist threat involving the use of laptop computers on aircraft.

For intelligence and counter-terrorist officials in the room, the disclosure immediately raised a bright red flag. The President's counter- terrorism adviser Tom Bossert quickly called the National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to alert them.

Gen McMaster and Mr Tillerson were sent out by the White House to rebut the report, insisting that Mr Trump did not "discuss sources, methods or military operations".

Reporters at the White House on Monday night reported hearing heated arguments behind closed doors as senior staff went into damage-control mode once more.

By Tuesday morning, however, Mr Trump made all the efforts at pushback by his staff utterly redundant with a pair of tweets just after 7am. "As President, I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled WH meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining... to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism," he said.

The extraordinary confirmation of the report triggered a new round of moderation from the White House. Gen McMaster was sent out once more to face questions over how his denial of the story the night before squared with the President's admission.

It was the premise of the story that was false, he argued, because the President had a right to share what he wanted to, and his disclosures were "appropriate to the conversation".

Gen McMaster focused on the national security damage caused by the leaks, but in so doing he did not dispute key elements of the Washington Post story - the sharing of the information, the fact that it came from a foreign agency, the Bossert call to the NSA and CIA, and that Mr Trump disclosed the city in which the original intelligence had been collected, potentially putting a covert source at risk.

Once more, attempts by partially briefed and uneasy officials to put out the fire caused by Mr Trump's relationship with Moscow had added even more fuel.


The report that US President Donald Trump asked then FBI director James Comey in February to drop the investigation into his former national security adviser Michael Flynn has fuelled accusations that the White House is obstructing justice. Is there a case?

Yes

Several federal statutes criminalise actions that impede official investigations.

While some examples of illegal ways to thwart the justice system are specific - such as killing a witness or destroying evidence - the law also includes broad, catch-all prohibitions. For example, Sections 1503, 1505 and 1512 of Title 18 have variants of language making it a crime if someone corruptly "obstructs, influences or impedes any official proceeding".

Could these cover asking the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director to drop part of an investigation, and later firing him?

In theory, yes. Such statutes were broadly drafted.

Former federal prosecutor Barak Cohen said the theory would be that President Donald Trump pressured Mr James Comey to stand down on Mr Michael Flynn because he feared the investigation could affect him personally.

Last week, Mr Trump removed Mr Comey from his post as FBI director and claimed that Mr Comey had told him three times he was not under investigation.

"While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau," he wrote to Mr Comey.

Mr Cohen said that itself could be a piece of circumstantial evidence that Mr Trump was trying to impede an ongoing probe.

Mr Trump also said in an NBC News interview that the Russia probe was on his mind when he fired his FBI director.

Mr Cohen said Mr Comey's memo was "direct evidence" against Mr Trump, but he noted that it came out only after the termination.

"The question is, if the President committed the crime or attempted to commit the crime of obstruction, and you serve the Constitution and not the President, why didn't you say something about this before you were fired?" Mr Cohen said.

NEW YORK TIMES, WASHINGTON POST

Maybe

Obstruction of justice cases often comes down to whether prosecutors can prove defendants' mental state when they committed the act, legal specialists said.

It is not enough to show that a defendant knew the act would have a side consequence of impeding an investigation; achieving that obstruction must be the specific intention.

"You have to realise that - as with any other sort of criminal law - intent is key, and intent here can be difficult to prove," said Mr Barak Cohen, a former federal prosecutor who now does white-collar defence work at the Perkins Coie law firm.

The laws governing obstruction of justice require prosecutors to show a person "corruptly" tried to influence a probe - meaning investigators have to find some evidence of what a person was thinking when taking a particular action.

In this case, analysts said, that would mean analysing the details of US President Donald Trump and then FBI director James Comey's conversation, assessing what else was happening at the time, and possibly talking to Trump associates who had talked with the President about what he wanted to do.

"It depends on what he said and how he said it," said Mr Edward MacMahon Jr, another criminal defence lawyer. He noted there are circumstances - such as the Central Intelligence Agency worrying about disclosure of classified information - in which one component of the executive branch discourages prosecutors from pursuing a case.

The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel has opined in the past that the President cannot be indicted or prosecuted at all, "because it would impermissibly interfere with the President's ability to carry out his constitutionally assigned functions and thus would be inconsistent with the constitutional structure".

Mr Trump could be impeached, though, for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours". In the articles of impeachment against president Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal - which were never taken up by the full House of Representatives - legislators cited obstruction of justice.

NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2017, with the headline 'Memo says President asked to halt probe '. Print Edition | Subscribe