The Comey memos are memoranda of conversations written by James Comey, the former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The existence of the memos was first reported on May 16, 2017 and document conversations between Comey and President Donald Trump. At least one of them documents an alleged attempt by Trump to persuade Comey to abort the FBI investigation into Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who had resigned his post as national security advisor the previous day, after he misled senior U.S. officials “about the nature of his conversations” with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. The White House responded to the allegations by stating that “the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn”.
According to a Comey associate, Trump also stated that Comey should consider putting reporters who publish classified information in prison. These memos were first publicly discussed about one week after the dismissal of James Comey as FBI Director.
As of May 25, 2017, actual copies of the memos have still not been released. On May 17, one day after the existence of the memos was reported by The New York Times, the Deputy Attorney General appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel for the Russia investigation, charged with overseeing the FBI’s ongoing counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections.
- 1Contents and creation
- 2Initial report and White House response
- 3Media reaction
- 4United States Congress reaction
- 5Special Counsel
- 6Legal analysis
- 7See also
Contents and creation
According to anonymous sources, Director Comey would record a detailed memo immediately following every meeting and telephone call he had with President Donald Trump. Allegedly, some memos were classified, while others were not.
One memo, which is unclassified, referred to a February 14, 2017, Oval Office meeting between Comey and Trump that began as a broader national security briefing. The meeting was the day after the dismissal of Michael Flynn by Trump. Near the conclusion of the briefing, according to this alleged memo, the President asked those in attendance other than Director Comey to leave the room – including Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He then reportedly stated to Comey “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Comey made no commitments to Trump on the subject.
The New York Times reported that the memos were created as part of a “paper trail” created by Comey to document “what he perceived as the president’s improper efforts to influence a continuing investigation”. Comey shared the memo with “a very small circle of people at the FBI and Justice Department“. Comey and other senior FBI officials perceived Trump’s remarks “as an effort to influence the investigation, but they decided that they would try to keep the conversation secret — even from the FBI agents working on the Russia investigation — so the details of the conversation would not affect the investigation”.
The Washington Post reported that two Comey associates who had seen Comey’s memo described it as two pages long and highly detailed.The Times noted that contemporaneous notes created by FBI agents are frequently relied upon “in court as credible evidence of conversations”.
According to a Washington Post report, the memos also document Trump’s criticism of the FBI for not pursuing leakers in the administration and his wish “to see reporters in jail”. The report outraged journalists and free-speech groups, who likened the statement to intimidation tactics used by authoritarian regimes. The Committee to Protect Journalists and Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron were among those who criticized the statement.
Initial report and White House response
The memos’ existence was first reported in a May 16, 2017, New York Times report, published several days after Trump fired Comey as FBI director; the report cited two people who read the memos. The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post independently reported on the memos’ existence.
Following news reports of the memos’ existence, the White House stated that “the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn” and stated “This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey.”
Fox News host Bret Baier said that no Republicans were “willing to go on camera” after reports on the memos were published. Charles Krauthammer, a regular panelist on Baier’s show, said, “What I think is really stunning is that nobody, not even from the White House, has come out under their own name in defense of the president here. We don’t see any Republicans on camera. And that is totally understandable. They’ve just watched over the last ten days, people who went out on a limb on the Comey firing, and said it was the result of the memo from the deputy Attorney General, and had their limb sawed off by Donald Trump himself without a flinch.” The following day, CBS This Morning co-host Charlie Rose said the show had contacted 20 Republican senators and representatives as well as White House representatives to appear on the show and all declined. Republicans also declined invitations from Chris Hayes to appear on MSNBC.
United States Congress reaction
House Oversight Committee
On May 16, on the same day that the existence of the Comey memos were reported, Republican U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, wrote a letter to acting FBI Director McCabe, requesting that “all memoranda, notes, summaries and recordings referring or relating to any communications between Comey and the President” be provided to the committee by May 24. Chaffetz wrote in the letter that the reports “raise questions as to whether the president attempted to influence or impede” the Flynn investigation. Chaffetz said that he intended to obtain the memos by subpoena if necessary. House SpeakerPaul Ryan supported Chaffetz’s request.
In a further request on May 25, Chaffetz asked the FBI to turn over documents about Comey’s interactions with the White House and Justice Department since Comey’s appointment as FBI Director, which also covers interactions between Comey and President Obama.
House Intelligence Committee
Democratic U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, stated: “If true, this is yet another disturbing allegation that the president may have engaged in some interference or obstruction of the investigation.”
Senate Intelligence Committee
On May 17, 2017, the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Republican chairman Richard Burr and Democratic vice chairman Mark Warner, sent two letters seeking information related to the committee’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. The first letter, sent to Comey, asked him to appear before the committee in both open and closed sessions. The second, sent to acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, asked for “any notes or memorandum prepared by the former Director regarding any communications he may have had with senior White House and Department of Justice officials related to investigations into Russia’s efforts.”
Senate Judiciary Committee
On May 17, 2017, the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a letter signed by Republican Senators Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham, and Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Sheldon Whitehouse, also requested records from FBI, seeking “all memos relating to former FBI Director Comey’s interactions with his superiors in both the Trump and Obama administrations” to be furnished by May 24.
News of the Comey memos added to talk of potential efforts to impeach Trump. When CNN‘s Wolf Blitzer asked independent Senator Angus King of Maine whether, if Trump had in fact asked Comey to end the investigation, the country would be “getting closer and closer to the possibility of yet another impeachment process”, King replied: “Reluctantly … I have to say yes simply because obstruction of justice is such a serious offense.”
One day after the existence of the memos was reported by The New York Times, the Justice Department appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel, charged with overseeing the FBI’s ongoing counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. On May 23, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice ethics experts announced they had declared Mueller ethically able to function as special counsel. In an interview with the Associated Press, Rosenstein said he would recuse from supervision of Mueller, if he himself were to become a subject in the investigation due to his role in the dismissal of James Comey.
Legal experts are divided as to whether Trump’s alleged request that Comey end the investigation can be considered obstruction of justice. Jens David Ohlin of Cornell University Law School and Jonathan Turley of George Washington University have argued that the request does not neatly fit into any of the practices commonly considered to fall under the obstruction of justice statute. Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Julie O’Sullivan of the Georgetown University Law Center argued that it is hard to prove that Trump had an intent to obstruct the investigation. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz said that “it’s a very, very high bar to get over obstruction of justice for a president.” Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith noted that it was implausible to indict a sitting president, noting that “the remedy for a criminal violation would be impeachment” instead. Erwin Chereminsky of University of California, Irvine School of Law, has argued that it was obstruction of justice.
Noah Feldman of Harvard University noted that the alleged request could be grounds for impeachment. University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck said that it was reasonable for people to “start talking about obstruction”. Harvard law professor Alex Whiting said that Trump’s actions were “very close to obstruction of justice… but still isn’t conclusive”. Christopher Slobogin of Vanderbilt University Law School said that a “viable case” could be made but that it was weak. John Dean, former White House Counsel to Richard Nixon, called the memo about the private conversation with President Trump concerning the Flynn investigation a “smoking gun” and noted that “good intentions do not erase criminal intent”.
Several Republican politicians and conservative journalists have asserted that Comey could be subject to legal jeopardy over his withholding the memos. Legal experts have criticized these assertions, with Harvard Law School professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz saying they are “total nonsense” and University of Texas School of Law professor Robert M. Chesney saying they are “completely uninformed”.