Did President Trump ask FBI Director James Comey, in a February 2017 meeting, not to pursue a Trump adviser who had misled investigators about conversations with Russians? If Trump made that request, it could be evidence of obstruction of justice, particularly in light of Comey’s subsequent firing. Trump denies it, but Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, seems to think that it may have happened. In a series of confused interviews on Monday, Giuliani alternated between positing that Trump made the request, stipulating that Trump denies it, and defending the request as a routine plea to a law enforcement official.
The dispute revolves around Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser. In an FBI interview on Jan. 24, 2017, Flynn falsely denied that he had talked with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about lifting sanctions on Russia. Flynn’s falsehoods were exposed, and on Feb. 13 he resigned. The next day, Trump met with Comey in the Oval Office.
As far as we know, the meeting wasn’t recorded. But immediately afterward, Comey documented its contents in a memo, which he shared with FBI colleagues, thereby committing himself to a clear account of what had transpired. Comey wrote that as a prior meeting was wrapping up, Trump asked everyone else to leave so that the two men could be alone. According to Comey, once they were alone, Trump told him: “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.”
Trump fired Comey on May 9, after months of frustration with the FBI’s Russia investigation. A month later, in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey was asked to say more about what Trump had meant in the Feb. 14 meeting. Comey replied that as he understood it, “What he wanted me to do was drop any investigation connected to Flynn’s account of his conversations with the Russians.”
External evidence has always supported Comey’s account. A rigorous Justice Department review of Comey’s conduct in the Hillary Clinton email investigation found no evidence that he had ever spoken dishonestly. People who were in the Oval Office prior to the Feb. 14 meeting have confirmed that Trump asked everyone but Comey to leave. And according to the Washington Post, Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, has told colleagues that a month after the Feb. 14 meeting, Trump—again after clearing the room of nearly all witnesses—asked Coats to “intervene with … Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus” on Flynn.
Trump has attacked Comey’s story, calling him a liar. When Comey’s memo was first reported on May 16, 2017, the White House declared, “This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation.” The White House statement said Trump “never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn.” The next day, Peter Baker of the New York Times asked Trump: “Did you at any time urge former FBI Director James Comey in any way, shape, or form to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn?” Twice, Trump replied, “No.”
Trump’s categorical denial ruled out the possibility that Comey had misunderstood him. It forced Comey to acknowledge that their stories couldn’t be reconciled. At the June 8 Senate hearing, Sen. Angus King told Comey: “In his press conference [on] May 18, the president responded, quote, ‘No, no,’ when asked about asking you to stop the investigation into Gen. Flynn. Is that a true statement?” Comey replied: “I don’t believe it is.”
Trump escalated his assault. His personal lawyer at the time, Marc Kasowitz, responded to Comey’s testimony by declaring that Trump “never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone, including suggesting that Mr. Comey ‘let Flynn go.’” The next day, June 9, Trump repeated what Kasowitz had said, specifically denying the phrase “let go.” Jonathan Karl of ABC News reminded Trump that according to Comey, “You told him to let the Flynn—you said you hoped the Flynn investigation, he could let go.” Trump cut off the question, insisting, “I didn’t say that.”
Trump didn’t address the subject again until early December, when Flynn pleaded guilty to misleading the FBI. Trump tweeted: “I never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn. Just more Fake News covering another Comey lie!” In a memo to special counsel Robert Mueller on Jan. 29, 2018, Trump’s lawyers asserted that the White House had “refuted that the President said these words to Mr. Comey.”
That wall of denial stood until July 8, when Trump’s new lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, began to speak of Comey’s account as credible. In an ABC News interview, George Stephanopoulos asked Giuliani about Comey’s report that Trump had asked him “to let the Michael Flynn investigation go.” Giuliani replied: “He didn’t direct him to do that. What he said to him was, ‘Can you—can you—’ ” At that point, Stephanopoulos interjected, “Comey says he took it as direction.” And Giuliani responded, “Well, that’s OK. … As a prosecutor, I was told that many times—‘Can you give the man a break?’—either by his lawyers, by his relatives, by friends.”
On Monday, in an interview on Fox & Friends, Giuliani brought up the Feb. 14, 2017 meeting himself. Trump “had a right to say to Comey, ‘Give Flynn a break,’ ” Giuliani argued. “He didn’t tell him, ‘Don’t investigate him, don’t prosecute him.’ He asked him to exercise his prosecutorial discretion, because [Flynn] was a good man with a great war record. I’ve been asked that, as a prosecutor, many times: ‘Take the man’s whole life into consideration.’ Either go easy on him, or maybe this one, can you pass on.”
In another Monday morning interview, this time on CNN, Giuliani took an If I Did It approach to Comey’s account. “The president says that conversation didn’t take place,” said Giuliani. “Comey said it took place. If it took place, I could live with that. You could say that the president wasn’t obstructing, just saying, you know, ‘Be good to him, go easy on him.’ … However, the president didn’t say it.”
Later on Monday, Giuliani told BuzzFeed News that he had been paraphrasing Comey’s account, not endorsing it. But even as he repeated Trump’s denial, Giuliani hinted that he didn’t buy it. “The president has denied it. I can’t admit it for the president if he’s denied it,” said Giuliani. And in an interview with Sean Hannity on Monday night, Giuliani worried that Trump’s rigid denial could put him in a perjury trap: “He said about Flynn, ‘I never had that conversation.’ Comey said he did have the conversation. So why do you call him to the grand jury for that? Because you want to rap him with a perjury charge.”
Giuliani’s musings don’t square with Trump’s position. It’s not just that Trump says one thing and Comey says another. It’s that Trump is adamant, while Giuliani is agnostic. Trump calls Comey’s story a lie. He specifically denies using the phrase “let go.” He insists that he never asked Comey “in any way, shape, or form” to back down from pursuing Flynn. In fact, according to Giuliani, Trump has told his attorneys that he and Comey “never had that conversation.”
Giuliani seems skeptical. His comment to Buzzfeed News—“I can’t admit it for the president if he’s denied it”—sounds like the plea of a lawyer trapped by his client’s intransigence. In his interviews on Fox, ABC, and CNN, Giuliani appears to have blurted out what he really thinks. In his own words, not Comey’s, he has said that Trump asked Comey to “give the man a break,” “go easy on him,” and “exercise his prosecutorial discretion.”
Maybe Giuliani says these things because he knows Comey’s story is the one that makes sense and matches the public record. Or maybe Giuliani knows something we don’t—a piece of evidence, or something his client has said in private—and that’s why he worries that Trump will be nailed for perjury if he answers Mueller’s questions about the Feb. 14 meeting. For some reason, the president’s lawyer doesn’t trust the president’s story. Some day, Lordy willing, we’ll find out why.