US House oversight committee chief demands FBI turn over all Trump-Comey communications by May 24

A combination photo shows US President Donald Trump (left), White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (centre) and FBI Director James Comey.
A combination photo shows US President Donald Trump (left), White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (centre) and FBI Director James Comey.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS, NYTIMES) - The US House of Representatives oversight committee has set a deadline of May 24 for the FBI to produce all communications between President Donald Trump and former FBI chief James Comey in the wake of reports that Trump had asked Comey to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser.

Republican lawmaker Jason Chaffetz, the committee head, wrote in a letter to acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe demanding that the agency produce “all memoranda, notes, summaries, and recordings referring or relating to any communications between Comey and the President.”

Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan backed Chaffetz.

“We need to have all the facts, and it is appropriate for the House Oversight Committee to request this memo,” said Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong. 

The demand came as members of Congress from both parties escalated calls on Tuesday for Comey to appear before them after the revelation of Trump's request by The New York Times.

President Trump asked Comey to shut down the federal investigation into Flynn in an Oval Office meeting in February, according to a memo that Comey wrote shortly after the meeting, NYTimes reported, citing two people who read the memo.

The New York Times has not viewed a copy of the memo, but one of Comey’s associates read parts of the memo to a Times reporter.

“The memo is powerful evidence of obstruction of justice and certainly merits immediate and prompt investigation by an independent special prosecutor,” said Democratic US Senator Richard Blumenthal.  Republican and Democratic lawmakers said they wanted to see the memo.

The explosive new development on Tuesday followed a week of tumult at the White House after Trump fired Comey and then discussed sensitive national security information about Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.  

The White House quickly denied the report, saying in a statement it was “not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey.”

Comey wrote the memo after he met in the Oval Office with Trump, the day after the Republican president fired Flynn on Feb 14 for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the extent of his conversations last year with Russia’s ambassador, Sergei Kislyak.

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump told Comey, according to the memo. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Trump told Comey that Flynn had done nothing wrong, according to the memo.

Comey did not say anything to Trump about curtailing the investigation, only replying: “I agree he is a good guy.”

The New York Times said that during the Oval Office meeting, Trump condemned a series of government leaks to the news media and said the FBI director should consider prosecuting reporters for publishing classified information.  

Coming the day after charges that Trump disclosed sensitive information to the Russians last week, the new disclosure further rattled members of Congress.

In firing Comey, the Trump administration chose not to wait for the results of a review by the Justice Department’s inspector general into Comey’s actions in the Clinton email investigation.

On Wednesday, Rep Chaffetz asked that the inspector general’s investigation be expanded to include an examination of Comey’s dismissal.

Legal experts took a dim view of Trump’s comments, as quoted in the memo.

“For the president to tell the FBI to end a potential criminal investigation, that’s obstruction of justice,” said Erwin Chereminsky, a constitutional law professor and dean of University of California, Irvine School of Law. “This is what caused President Nixon to resign from office.”

But the experts said intent was a critical element of an obstruction of justice charge, and the president’s words could be subject to interpretation and possibly put into the context of other actions, like Comey’s termination.  

The FBI acting director, Andrew McCabe, said the inquiry was “highly significant” and pledged to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the FBI would resist any attempt to influence or hobble the investigation.

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said: “It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the president’s decision to remove Director Comey was related to this investigation, and that is truly unacceptable.”

The fact that the president apparently said he “hoped” Comey would end the Flynn investigation rather than more directly ordering it “makes for a weaker but still viable case,” said Christopher Slobogin, a criminal law professor at Vanderbilt University Law School.

Flynn’s resignation came hours after it was reported that the Justice Department had warned the White House weeks earlier that Flynn could be vulnerable to blackmail for contacts with Kislyak before Trump took office on Jan 20.  

Kislyak was with Lavrov at the White House when Trump disclosed the sensitive information.  A spokeswoman for the FBI declined to comment on the details of the memo.  

An emailed fundraising appeal by Trump’s political organisation and the Republican National Committee sent out after reports of the Comey memo said Trump was being victimised by an “unelected bureaucracy.”

“You already knew the media was out to get us,” it said.“But sadly it’s not just the fake news… There are people within our own unelected bureaucracy that want to sabotage President Trump and our entire ‘America First’ movement.”

The new development came as Republican and Democratic lawmakers pressured Trump to give a fuller explanation for revealing sensitive intelligence information to Lavrov. 

The information had been supplied by Israel in the fight against ISIS, the officials said.