WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump called FBI Director James Comey weeks after he took office and asked him when federal authorities were going to put out word that Trump was not personally under investigation, according to two people briefed on the call.
Comey told the president that if he wanted to know details about the bureau’s investigations, he should not contact him directly but instead follow the proper procedures and have the White House counsel send any inquiries to the Justice Department, according to those people.
After explaining to Trump how communications with the FBI should work, Comey believed he had effectively drawn the line after a series of encounters he had with the president and other White House officials that he felt jeopardized the FBI’s independence. At the time, Comey was overseeing the investigation into links between Trump’s associates and Russia.
Those interactions included a dinner in which associates of Comey say Trump asked him to pledge his loyalty and a meeting in the Oval Office at which Trump told him he hoped Comey would shut down an investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Trump has denied making the request.
Comey described all of his encounters with the president and the White House in detailed memos he wrote at the time and gave to his aides. Congressional investigators have requested copies of the memos, which, according to two people who have read them, provide snapshots of a fraught relationship between a president trying to win over and influence an FBI director, and someone who had built his reputation on asserting his independence, sometimes in a dramatic way.
It is not clear whether in all their interactions Comey answered Trump’s question or if he ever told him whether he was under investigation. In the letter Trump sent to Comey last week in which he informed him that he had been fired, Trump told Comey, “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”
In the modern FBI, directors have sought an arm’s length relationship with the presidents they serve and have followed Justice Department guidelines outlining how the White House should have limited contact with the FBI.
Comey has spoken privately of his concerns that the contacts from Trump and his aides were inappropriate, and how he felt compelled to resist them.
Benjamin Wittes, a friend of Comey’s and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, recalls a lunch he had with Comey in March at which Comey told him he had spent the first two months of Trump’s administration trying to preserve distance between the FBI and the White House and educating it on the proper way to interact with the bureau.
Wittes said that Comey told him that despite Trump’s attempts to build a personal relationship, he did not want to be friendly with the president.
Their conversation took place after Comey’s phone call with the president, Wittes said, and Comey told him that his relationship with the president and the White House staff was now in the right place.
“ ‘I think we’ve kind of got them trained,’ ” Wittes said, paraphrasing what Comey told him.