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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Comey memos reveal Trump questioned adviser's judgment

Former FBI chief's notes on meetings with US president released to Congress

Former FBI director James Comey arrives to speak about his book 'A Higher Loyalty' in New York on April 18, 2018. Lucas Jackson / Reuters
Former FBI director James Comey arrives to speak about his book 'A Higher Loyalty' in New York on April 18, 2018. Lucas Jackson / Reuters

President Donald Trump told James Comey that he had serious concerns about the judgment of a top adviser, asked about the possibility of jailing journalists and described a boast from Vladimir Putin about Russian prostitutes in a series of startlingly candid conversations recorded in memos by the former FBI director.

The 15 pages of notes, obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday night, contain new details about interactions with Mr Trump that Mr Comey found so unnerving that he chose to document them in writing.

Those seven encounters in the weeks and months before Mr Comey's May 2017 firing include a Trump Tower discussion about allegations involving Mr Trump and prostitutes in Moscow; a White House dinner at which Mr Comey says Mr Trump asked him for his loyalty; and a private Oval Office discussion where the ex-FBI head says the president asked him to end an investigation into Michael Flynn, the former White House national security adviser.

The documents had been eagerly anticipated since their existence was first revealed last year, especially since Mr Comey's interactions with Trump are a critical part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into whether the president sought to obstruct justice.

Late on Thursday night, Mr Trump tweeted that the memos "show clearly that there was NO COLLUSION and NO OBSTRUCTION".

The president also accused Mr Comey of leaking classified information.

The memos obtained by Associated Press were unclassified, though some portions were blacked out as classified. Details from Mr Comey's memos reported in news stories last year appear to come from the unclassified portions.

In explaining the purpose of creating the memos, which have been provided to Mr Mueller, Mr Comey has said he "knew there might come a day when I would need a record of what had happened" to defend not only himself but the FBI as well.

The memos cover the first three months of the Trump administration, a period of upheaval marked by staff turnover, a cascade of damaging headlines and revelations of an FBI investigation into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. The documents reflect Mr Trump's uneasiness about that investigation, though not always in ways that Mr Comey seemed to anticipate.

In a February 2017 conversation, for instance, Mr Trump told Mr Comey how Russia's President Putin told him, "we have some of the most beautiful hookers in the world" even as the president adamantly, and repeatedly, distanced himself from a salacious allegation concerning him and prostitutes in Moscow.

One of the 15 pages of partially redacted memos made by former FBI director James Comey recounting conversations with President Donald Trump last year. Gavino Garay / Reuters
One of the 15 pages of partially redacted memos made by former FBI director James Comey recounting conversations with President Donald Trump last year. Gavino Garay / Reuters

In another memo, Mr Comey recounts how Mr Trump at a private White House dinner pointed his fingers at his head and complained that Mr Flynn, his embattled national security adviser, "has serious judgment issues". The president blamed Mr Flynn for failing to alert him promptly to a congratulatory call from a world leader, causing a delay for Mr Trump in returning a message to an official whose name is redacted in the documents.

"I did not comment at any point during this topic and there was no mention or acknowledgment of any FBI interest in or contact with General Flynn," Mr Comey wrote.

By that point, the FBI had already interviewed Mr Flynn about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and the Justice Department had already warned White House officials that they were concerned Mr Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail.

Mr Flynn was fired February 13, 2017, after White House officials said he had misled them about his Russian contacts during the transition period by saying that he had not discussed sanctions. The following day, according to a separate memo, Mr Comey says Mr Trump cleared the Oval Office of other officials, encouraged him to let go of the investigation into Mr Flynn and called him a good guy.

Mr Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is now cooperating with Mr Mueller's investigation.

The memos reveal that days before Mr Flynn was fired, then-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus asked Mr Comey if Mr Flynn's communications were being monitored under a secret surveillance warrant.

"Do you have a FISA order on Mike Flynn?" Mr Priebus asked, referring to an order under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Mr Comey said he "paused for a few seconds and then said that I would answer here, but that this illustrated the kind of question that had to be asked and answered through established channels".

Mr Comey's response is redacted on the unclassified memos.

The memos also show Mr Trump's continued distress at a dossier of allegations — compiled by a former British spy whose work was funded by the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign — examining potential ties between him and his aides and the Kremlin. Mr Comey writes how Mr Trump repeatedly denied to him having been involved in an encounter with Russian prostitutes in a Moscow hotel.

"The President said 'the hookers thing' is nonsense," Mr Comey wrote, noting that Mr Trump then related the conversation with Mr Putin about the "most beautiful hookers". Mr Comey says the president did not say when Mr Putin had made the comment.

The documents also include the president's musings about pursuing leakers and imprisoning journalists. They also provide insight into Mr Comey's personal and professional opinions. He judges the administration's travel ban to be legally valid, and he takes a swipe at former attorney general Loretta Lynch, calling her predecessor, Eric Holder, "smarter and more sophisticated and smoother".

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The memos were provided to Congress on Thursday as House Republicans escalated criticism of the Justice Department, threatening to subpoena the documents and questioning officials.

In a letter sent to three Republican House committee chairmen on Thursday evening, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote that the department was sending a classified version of the memos and an unclassified version. The department released Mr Boyd's letter publicly but did not release the memos. The chairmen issued a statement late Thursday saying the memos show that Mr Comey clearly never felt threatened, and Mr Trump did not obstruct justice.

Justice officials had allowed some legislators to view the memos but had never provided copies to Congress. Mr Boyd wrote that the department had also provided the memos to several senate committees.

Mr Boyd wrote in the letter that the department "consulted the relevant parties" and concluded that releasing the memos would not adversely affect any ongoing investigations.

Mr Mueller is investigating potential ties between Russia and Mr Trump's 2016 campaign as well as possible obstruction of justice by the president.

Mr Comey is on a publicity tour to promote his new book, A Higher Loyalty. He revealed last year that he had written the memos after conversations with Mr Trump.

He said in an interview with CNN on Thursday that he was "fine" with the Justice Department turning his memos over to Congress.

"I think what folks will see if they get to see the memos is I've been consistent since the very beginning, right after my encounters with President Trump, and I'm consistent in the book and tried to be transparent in the book as well," he said.

Former FBI director James Comey poses with his book, 'A Higher Loyalty', in New York on April 18, 2018. Lucas Jackson / Reuters
Former FBI director James Comey poses with his book, 'A Higher Loyalty', in New York on April 18, 2018. Lucas Jackson / Reuters