WASHINGTON –– At a crucial juncture in special counsel Robert Mueller's wide-ranging Russia investigation, President Donald Trump embarked on a risky gambit Sunday, going on record to directly dispute his former FBI chief's sworn contention that the president had sought to derail an investigation into fired national security adviser Michael Flynn.
The imbroglio, set off by a Twitter post from Trump, comes on the heels of Flynn's guilty plea to charges of having lied to the FBI in connection with conversations with Russia's ambassador to Washington during the presidential transition.
Friday's development was met with initial silence from Trump, and then with a deluge of weekend Twitter posts in which he muddied the waters over his reasons for firing Flynn, excoriated the Justice Department and the FBI, renewed his attacks on Hillary Clinton and seemingly questioned the impartiality of Mueller's investigation. He also explicitly contested statements by Comey, who was fired seven months ago, regarding events before his dismissal.
On Sunday morning, Trump said on Twitter: "I never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn," adding: "Just more Fake News covering another Comey lie!"
Sunday's statement by Trump on Twitter was largely in line with his previous disparagement of Comey, whose truthfulness and even mental stability the president has questioned.
Last month, the president said that Comey was a "liar" and a "leaker." In May, the day after firing the FBI director -- an action that set in motion Mueller's appointment as special counsel -- the president told senior Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting that Comey was a "crazy ... a real nut job," according to news reports based on transcripts of the encounter.
But the specificity and timing of the president's public denial of Comey's contention that Trump asked him to back off from investigating Flynn took on added significance with news that the former national security advisor is now cooperating with Mueller's investigation.
Within hours of Trump's Twitter post, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner of Virginia, said: "I believe FBI Director Comey."
Warner, on CNN's "State of the Union," said Comey was "very credible in his testimony" to the Intelligence Committee in June. Comey has said he kept contemporaneous notes of an encounter in which Trump asked if he could ease off Flynn, characterizing the fired national security adviser as a "good guy."
Warner said he expected that Flynn being charged with only a single count of lying suggested that he had "many more stories ... to tell" about the Trump campaign and transition.