WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump spoke in intimate and candid terms to former FBI Director James Comey about some of the most sensitive matters before the agency.
The redacted and declassified memos — running 15 pages in total and sent to Congress from the Justice Department on Thursday night — detail a series of phone calls and encounters between the two men in the months leading up to Comey’s firing.
They offer an extraordinary look at the private interactions among leaders at the highest levels of government.
Trump seized on the memos in a Twitter message posted late Thursday to repeat what has become a constant refrain, that there was “NO COLLUSION and NO OBSTRUCTION.”
“Will the Witch Hunt continue?” he added.
In one previously undisclosed exchange, according to copies of the memos obtained by The New York Times, Trump told Comey that he had reservations about Flynn: “The guy has serious judgment issues.”
The president shared an anecdote that shortly after the inauguration, a prominent foreign leader had called to congratulate him. Flynn told the president that he had scheduled a return call for the next Saturday — far too late in Trump’s estimation.
The Times reported at the time that Trump was irritated at Flynn for delaying such a call with President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Flynn was eventually fired for misleading Vice President Mike Pence and others about the details of a conversation with a Russian ambassador. Soon after, Comey was again at the White House for another meeting. This time, he wrote, Trump told him that Flynn “hadn’t done anything wrong” in calling the Russians and asked him to wrap up his inquiry.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said, according to the memo.
Flynn has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about those conversations and is cooperating with investigators for the special counsel who inherited the investigation from Comey.
That exchange and other broad outlines of the memos, which were first published by The Associated Press, have already been reported by The Times and were relayed by Comey in testimony before the Senate and in his recent memoir, “A Higher Loyalty.”
But they are believed to be evidence in a possible obstruction of justice case against Trump being pursued by the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
The memos are exacting in their specificity, including details about who was sitting where, the precise times that conversations began and their durations. In some cases, Comey shared his accounts with others immediately afterward.
These details add credibility to Comey’s account of events. Trump has disputed some parts, including asking Comey to shut down an investigation into Flynn.
“What follows are notes I typed in the vehicle immediately upon exiting Trump Tower on 1/6/17,” Comey writes at the beginning of his first memo, sent the next day to his deputy director, chief of staff and the FBI’s chief counsel.
Select lawmakers have been allowed to view redacted versions of the memos at the Justice Department. But three House Republican committee chairmen requested last Friday that they be sent to Congress and made clear this week that they were willing to issue a subpoena if the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, did not comply.
The Justice Department relented Thursday and is expected to deliver unredacted versions of the memos via a secure transfer Friday.
In a letter to lawmakers Thursday, Stephen Boyd, an assistant attorney general, wrote, “In light of the unusual events occurring since the previous limited disclosure, the department has consulted the relevant parties and concluded that the release of the memorandums to Congress at this time would not adversely impact any ongoing investigation or other confidentiality interests of the executive branch.”
The three chairman — Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., of the Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., of the Oversight Committee — issued a joint statement Thursday night taking aim at Comey’s character and the import of the memos. The documents, they said, show Comey was “blind with biases” and demonstrated bad judgment.
While Comey “went to great lengths to set dining room scenes, discuss height requirements, describe the multiple times he felt complimented and myriad other extraneous facts, he never once mentioned the most relevant fact of all, which was whether he felt obstructed in his investigation,” they wrote.
Democrats reached the opposite conclusion. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, argued that the documents were the effort of a prudent law enforcement official alarmed by the president’s behavior.
The memos include other previously undisclosed conversations that shed light on the FBI’s Russia investigation and Trump’s views of it.
Regarding a Feb. 8 meeting with Reince Priebus, then the White House chief of staff, for example, Comey writes that Priebus asked about the contents of the dossier produced by a former British spy that lays out a vast conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to sway the election. In the days before the inauguration, Comey briefed Trump about the document and its contents, including a supposed encounter between Trump and Russian prostitutes.
Portions of that section of the memo were redacted, but in speaking with Priebus, Comey makes clear that the bureau was taking the allegations seriously.
“I explained that the analysts from all three agencies agreed it was relevant and that portions of the material were corroborated by other intelligence,” Comey wrote. He then defended his decision to share it with Trump, saying again that “much of it was consistent with and corroborative of other intelligence.”
Later in the conversation, Priebus asked Comey if their discussion was private. When the director replied that it was, the White House chief of staff asked whether the FBI had ever wiretapped Flynn.
Comey told Priebus that the question was inappropriate and should be directed through other channels. His response was redacted.
The two men then proceeded to the Oval Office, where Comey said Trump denied that he had consorted with Russian prostitutes, as the dossier claimed.
“The president said ‘the hookers thing’ is nonsense, but that Putin had told him ‘we have some of the most beautiful hookers in the world,'” Comey wrote. He said Trump did not specify when the conversation with Putin took place.
Other memos add details to well-known exchanges. In the same meeting that Trump asked Comey to end the Flynn investigation, the men bonded over leaks of sensitive government information.
“I said I was eager to find leakers and would like to nail one to the door as a message,” Comey wrote. But, he explained, prosecuting journalists “was tricky” for legal reasons.
Trump told Comey to talk to “Sessions,” referring to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, “and see what we can do about being more aggressive.”
Trump asked Comey on two separate occasions whether his deputy, Andrew McCabe, “had a problem with him” and mentioned a large donation made to his wife’s political campaign by an ally of Hillary Clinton.
Comey defended McCabe as a “true pro” and said Trump would come to agree.
Instead, Trump would go on to lavish criticism on McCabe, arguing he was biased against him.
McCabe was fired by the FBI in March for reportedly lying to investigators about his contacts with a reporter in an unrelated matter. Federal prosecutors are examining whether they have sufficient evidence to open a criminal investigation based on a report by the department’s inspector general.
And they show that Trump and top aides were eager to discuss with Comey the details of another consequential FBI investigation: the inquiry into Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state. Priebus told Comey that he believed the Clinton campaign had mishandled the investigation and pressed him for an explanation of why Clinton had not been charged.
“At some point, I added that it also wasn’t my fault that Huma Abedin forwarded emails to Anthony Weiner,” Comey wrote, referring to a top Clinton aide and her husband.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.