WASHINGTON — Mr Donald Trump is facing the deepest crisis of his presidency after a memo written by then-Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James Comey surfaced, alleging that the president asked him to drop an investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
The revelation raised questions about whether the president sought to influence the FBI at the same time it is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with Moscow by Trump associates.
The memo’s emergence, after Mr Trump fired Mr Comey, had congressional Democrats raising the spectre that the president engaged in obstruction of justice, an impeachable offence.
The White House was already on the defensive over the president’s firing of Mr Comey a week ago and over a report on Monday that Mr Trump disclosed sensitive intelligence to Russian officials. Then another political bombshell exploded on Tuesday night.
“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, as cited by The New York Times, which first reported its existence. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Mr Comey wrote the memo detailing his conversation with the president immediately after the meeting, according to two people who read the memo. The meeting took place the day after Mr Flynn resigned over what the White House said were misleading accounts of his conversations with Russia’s US ambassador.
The memo was part of a paper trail Mr Comey created documenting what he perceived as the president’s improper efforts to influence a continuing 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.
Mr Trump told Mr Comey that Mr Flynn had done nothing wrong, according to the memo. Mr Comey did not say anything to Mr Trump about curtailing the investigation, replying only: “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 General Flynn,” the statement said.
“The president has the utmost respect for our law enforcement agencies, and all investigations. This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr Comey.”
Democrats escalated their demands for congressional action. All 33 members of the House oversight and judiciary committees endorsed a call for an “immediate” investigation of the president, attorney-general Jeff Sessions and senior White House aides for engaging in “an ongoing conspiracy” to obstruct the Russia probes. “If there were ever a final nail on the case for an independent prosecutor, this is it,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a member of the Judiciary Committee. “And there’s more behind it. There are other memos.”
He and other Democrats said that Mr Comey must testify before lawmakers about his conversations with the president. “At best, President Trump has committed a grave abuse of executive power,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in a statement. “At worst, he has obstructed justice.”
As battle-scarred West Wing aides tried to contain the fallout from the series of bad news, tempers flared and confusion swirled at the White House. Late Monday, reporters could hear senior aides shouting from behind closed doors as they discussed how to respond after Washington Post reporters informed them of an article they were writing that first reported the news about the president’s divulging of intelligence.
The president’s appetite for chaos, coupled with his disregard for the self-protective conventions of the presidency, has left his staff confused and squabbling. His own mood, according to two advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has become sour and dark, and he has turned against most of his aides — even his son-in-law, Mr Jared Kushner — describing them in a fury as “incompetent”, according to one of those advisers.
People close to the president said Mr Trump was considering the firing of several lower-level staff members, including several hired by Mr Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, while weighing a plan to hand most day-to-day briefing responsibilities to deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. AGENCIES