If you come at James Comey, you best not miss.
The former FBI director—who President Donald Trump fired and then later threatened on Twitter last week—reportedly kept notes of their conversations, and some of those details are now making their way into public view. According to one of those memos, first reported by The New York Times on Tuesday, the president urged Comey to drop the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser.
The White House, through an anonymous press statement, flatly denied the Times’ reporting, which has since been confirmed by several other media organizations. (The Daily Beast could not immediately do so independently.) But the reported details already have some—including attorneys, members of Congress, and law enforcement officials—suggesting criminal wrongdoing.
“The obstruction of justice articles of impeachment counts are stacking up, it seems,” an active duty FBI agent told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. Firing Comey, the agent added, was a “big gamble. You’ve got to kill him, metaphorically. You can’t just wound him.”
For this story, The Daily Beast spoke with nine current and former administration and law enforcement officials, most on the condition of anonymity so they could speak freely.
Trump administration officials described the current state of affairs in the West Wing as expectedly chaotic and anxious—but having an almost “numbing effect,” as one described it—as White House staff and senior Trump aides frantically jumped from one crisis and negative news cycle to the next.
“I feel like running down the hallway with a fire extinguisher,” one senior Trump administration official told The Daily Beast, in response to an inquiry regarding Tuesday’s developments.
On the heels of yet another round of bad press that started on Monday—reports that the president shared classified national security information with top Russian diplomats in an Oval Office meeting last week—Tuesday’s reports on Comey’s memo sent another wave of frustration through a White House already reeling from a week of intense media scrutiny.
“Every time I feel like we’re getting a handle on the last Russia fiasco, a new one pops,” a White House staffer told The Daily Beast on Monday evening. On Tuesday, after reports of the Comey memo began to circulate, the staffer revised that assessment: “I guess I was wrong about the timing,” the staffer said. “We can’t even wrap up one Russia fiasco before we’re on to the next one.”
A senior official in the Trump administration, who previously worked on the president’s campaign, offered a candid and brief assessment of the fallout from that string of bad press: “I don’t see how Trump isn’t completely fucked.”
The meeting in question between Trump and Comey came a day after the resignation of Mike Flynn, the most briefly tenured national security adviser in White House history, who stepped down after it was revealed that he had failed to disclose details of a December conversation with Russia’s ambassador to Washington regarding U.S. sanctions against the country. Flynn and a number of associates have since been subpoenaed by congressional investigators as part of their probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Robert Kelner, Flynn’s attorney, declined to comment on reports that Trump asked Comey to drop the FBI’s investigation.
According to Comey’s account, Trump told him, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” the Times reported. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
That plea, if relayed accurately, could veer dangerously close to criminal activity, according to national security attorney Brad Moss.
“Even if there is some legal nuance that the President could rely upon to save himself here from an obstruction charge, the allegation (if true) is politically devastating,” Moss told The Daily Beast in an email. “The President didn’t just walk up to the line, he stepped over it without a moment’s hesitation and threw aside decades of institutional precedent separating the FBI from the White House.”
“This is now a consistent pattern of obstruction [of justice] by the President,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent and Daily Beast contributor. “The loyalty oath dinner, the request to squash the Flynn investigation and Comey’s firing over Russia all point to a President Trump who has no respect for the rule of law, and doesn’t realize that he should not run the country the way he ran his businesses.”
One official in the Justice Department wasn’t quite so sure. “In legal terms, this doesn’t look like further evidence of obstruction of justice,” the official told The Daily Beast, adding: “It does look like further evidence of consciousness of guilt.”
The release of language in Comey’s memo comes amid a torrent of bad press for the White House over its firing of the FBI director last week. The president admitted in an interview shortly after that firing that Comey’s refusal to wind down the FBI’s probe into his campaign’s contacts with Russian officials influenced his decision to let Comey go. Days later, reports surfaced that Trump had asked Comey at a private dinner to pledge his loyalty to the president.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, one of the panels probing Russian election meddling and Flynn’s role in it, said he hoped to bring Comey back before his committee to testify. He also suggested that he might seek to compel the release of the former FBI director’s memos on his conversations with the president.
“I also think that we ought to ask for the notes that were taken, contemporaneously or shortly after those meetings, and of course if there are any tapes as the president alleged… if necessary we should subpoena them,” Schiff told reporters on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, suggested that he might subpoena those documents as well. His committee “is going to get the Comey memo, if it exists. I need to see it sooner rather than later,” Chaffetz wrote on Twitter. “I have my subpoena pen ready.”
Those full memos could also shed light on the Trump administration’s proposed legal actions against journalists who report on sensitive or classified information, Tuesday’s media reports indicate.
Trump’s private conversations with Comey weren’t just about the Flynn investigation, apparently. According to the Times, a Comey associate said that Trump had told Comey in the Oval Office that the now ex-FBI director should consider throwing reporters in prison for publishing classified information.
Members of the White House communications shop did not immediately respond to emails from The Daily Beast seeking comment on Trump’s reported pitch to Comey about jailing journalists. However, such a suggestion would not be uncharacteristic for this president. On the campaign trail, Trump publicly and loudly declared that as president he would expand libel laws to make it easier for him to sue news outlets that cover him in ways he finds unacceptable or too mean.