Trump demanded loyalty pledge from Comey, say sources

According to Mr James Comey's account of a dinner conversation in January with Mr Donald Trump, the then FBI director declined to pledge his loyalty to the President, offering him honesty instead.
According to Mr James Comey's account of a dinner conversation in January with Mr Donald Trump, the then FBI director declined to pledge his loyalty to the President, offering him honesty instead.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

White House disputes account; Trump gives different version of chat with ex-FBI director

WASHINGTON • Only seven days after Mr Donald Trump was sworn in as President, Mr James Comey has told associates, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director was summoned to the White House for a one-on-one dinner with the new commander-in-chief.

The conversation that night in January, Mr Comey now believes, was a harbinger of his downfall this week as head of the FBI, said two people who have heard his account.

As they ate, they made small talk before the President turned the topic to whether Mr Comey would pledge his loyalty to him. Mr Comey declined to make that pledge. Instead, he told others, he told Mr Trump he would always be honest with him, but he was not "reliable" in the conventional political sense.

The White House said this is not correct. And Mr Trump, in an NBC interview on Thursday, described a far different dinner conversation in which Mr Comey requested the meeting and the topic of loyalty never came up. It was not clear whether he was talking about the same meal, but they are believed to have had only one dinner together.

By Mr Comey's account, his answer did not satisfy the President, who repeated he needed his loyalty. Mr Comey said he would give "honesty". Mr Trump asked whether it would be "honest loyalty", and he replied: "You will have that."

Mr Trump has long made loyalty from his staff a priority, often discharging employees he deems insufficiently reliable. As told by the two people, the dinner offers a window into his approach to the presidency, through Mr Comey's eyes.

Mr Trump has long made loyalty from his staff a priority, often discharging employees he deems insufficiently reliable. As told by the two people, the dinner offers a window into his approach to the presidency, through Mr Comey's eyes.

A businessman and reality television star who never served in public office, Mr Trump may not have understood that by tradition, FBI directors are not supposed to be political loyalists, which is why Congress in the 1970s passed a law giving them 10-year terms to make them independent of the president.

Mr Comey told several people of his refusal to pledge loyalty to Mr Trump, on the condition that they not discuss it publicly while he was FBI director. After he was fired, they felt free to discuss it off the record. A White House spokesman disputed this account on Thursday.

Mr Trump told NBC Mr Comey requested the dinner to ask to keep his job. Mr Trump said he asked the FBI director if he was under investigation, a question that legal experts called highly unusual if not improper. Mr Trump said Mr Comey reassured him that he was not.

Mr Trump did not say whether he asked Mr Comey for his loyalty. The dinner described by Mr Comey's associates came in the early days of the Trump administration, as the FBI was investigating Russian meddling in the election and possible ties to Mr Trump's campaign.

Mr Trump met Mr Comey for the first time in January when, along with intelligence chiefs, Mr Comey showed him proof of that intervention. Mr Comey was asked to tell Mr Trump of a secret dossier suggesting Russia may have collected compromising information about him.

The dinner at which the conversation Mr Comey related took place was on Jan 27, almost a month later. CNN reported on Thursday that Mr Comey never gave Mr Trump an assurance of his loyalty. Mr Comey's associates said the new President requested the dinner he described.

The White House, in announcing Mr Comey's dismissal on Tuesday, released documents from the attorney-general and deputy attorney- general on why he should be fired.

Mr Trump told NBC: "Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey... In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story."

NY TIMES

 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 13, 2017, with the headline 'Trump demanded loyalty pledge from Comey, say sources'. Print Edition | Subscribe