Trump's Russia Troubles Deepen as Comey Plans Senate Testimony

  • Latest news emerges as president leaves on first foreign trip
  • Probe focuses on White House official, Washington Post reports

Trump Travel Overshadowed by White House Drama

Former FBI Director James Comey agreed to testify in open session before the Senate Intelligence Committee about the bureau’s probe into Russian meddling with the 2016 U.S. election, intensifying Donald Trump’s troubles at the start of his first foreign trip as president.

The announcement late Friday from committee Chairman Richard Burr, of North Carolina, and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat, came hours after the Washington Post reported that the FBI’s Russia investigation had identified a senior White House adviser close to the president as a significant person of interest. The Post didn’t name the official.

James Comey

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Comey’s decision ended more than a week of speculation about whether he would appear publicly to make his case since he was fired by Trump on May 9, and underscores how the probe is accelerating. Investigators are shifting from work that has largely been hidden from the public to conducting interviews and asking for grand jury subpoenas, the Post reported, citing people familiar with the investigation.

Also, the New York Times reported Friday that Trump had told top Russian diplomats who visited the Oval Office last week that firing Comey relieved “great pressure” on him. The report, which cited a U.S. official who has seen a document summarizing the meeting, said Trump also told the Russians the FBI director “was crazy, a real nut job.”

In a statement, Warner said he hoped the testimony would "help answer some of the questions that have arisen since Director Comey was so suddenly dismissed by the President. I also expect that Director Comey will be able to shed light on issues critical to this Committee’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.” They said in the statement the hearing would be scheduled after the May 29 Memorial Day holiday in the U.S.

Confirm or Dispute

White House response to Comey’s agreement to testify wasn’t immediately available. Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who is on Air Force One with Trump, issued written statements responding to the stories from the Post and the Times.

Spicer didn’t confirm or dispute the comments in the Times story on the meeting with Russian envoys. “By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia,” Spicer said.

He responded to the report that a White House official is a person of interest with one sentence: “As the President has stated before -- a thorough investigation will confirm that there was no collusion between the campaign and any foreign entity.”

The Trump administration already was engulfed in crisis as the Justice Department appointed Robert Mueller, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as special counsel to lead the probe into Russian election meddling and whether anyone close to Trump colluded in the effort.

Read What Is and Isn’t Special About a Special Counsel

On Thursday, a day after the special counsel was named, Trump wrote on Twitter that the inquiry “is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”

Trump had ignited a political firestorm the previous week when he fired Comey, who was running the investigation. After the firing, associates of Comey leaked a February memo the FBI director had written describing a conversation in which Trump asked him to drop an investigation into former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn’s dealings with Turkey and Russia.

Pointed Questions

Comey is sure to face pointed questions from the committee about whether Trump directly asked him to squash the Flynn investigation and whether he thinks he was fired for refusing. His answer to those questions will carry significant weight with lawmakers, who have already asked for copies of that memo.

When he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month, Comey defended his decision to reveal that the agency was restarting its probe into Hillary Clinton’s email use just days before last year’s election while not disclosing a separate probe into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

He said the notion that he may have affected the presidential race made him feel “mildly nauseous,” though he’d do it all again because not doing so “would have been catastrophic.”

Earlier Friday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said he thought Trump’s decision to fire Comey was the right call, providing his first public account of his role in the controversial dismissal.

“Notwithstanding my personal affection for Director Comey, I thought it was appropriate to seek a new leader,” Rosenstein said in prepared remarks for appearances before House and Senate lawmakers that were released Friday by the Justice Department. He even said he had discussed the need for a change with then-Senator Jeff Sessions last winter. Sessions is now Rosenstein’s boss as attorney general.

Even so, the deputy attorney general added that a memo he wrote sharply criticizing Comey’s handling of the Clinton probe was a “candid internal memorandum” that wasn’t intended as “a statement of reasons to justify” the director’s dismissal.

Trip Abroad

The controversy is following Trump on a high-stakes eight-day trip across the Mideast and Europe packed with crucial sit-downs with key allies. Trump is scheduled to meet with Saudi King Salman, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis and newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron.

Trump also plans to make an address to the Arab World while in Saudi Arabia and make his debut in international summitry at meetings of NATO leaders and leaders of the Group of Seven major industrialized democracies.

The political baggage from home adds to an already big challenge for a president who had no experience in foreign affairs before his election and who has already suffered repeated stumbles in encounters with other leaders.

Trump and his team planned the trip as an opportunity for the U.S. president to unify Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders against extremism, a senior administration official said. Trump hopes to use his appearances in the Mideast to define the conflict with Islamic State and other terrorists as one of good versus evil, rather than the West versus Islam, the official said.

Trump also set a goal to use the visits as a way to signal that the U.S. is re-establishing its global leadership role while emphasizing its allies’ responsibility to share more of the burden of their own defense and to increase investment and partnerships that can create U.S. jobs, the official said.

Comey’s decision to speak to the Senate Intelligence Committee while declining to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee drew complaints from Judiciary’s chairman, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s ranking member.

"There is no reason he can’t testify before both the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, particularly given that the Judiciary Committee is the FBI’s primary oversight committee with broad jurisdiction over federal law enforcement, FISA and the nomination of the next FBI director," Grassley and Feinstein said in a statement. "He should reconsider his decision."

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