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As Mueller probe deepens, Trump says he didn't ask Comey to stop investigating Flynn

Laura King, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

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.

The response to major developments in the Mueller investigation has often diverged along partisan lines. But Flynn's guilty plea, which for the first time takes the investigation inside the White House, drew cautionary language from some Republican GOP.

 

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said on CNN that he agreed with those who said Trump should not pardon Flynn.

"We have to have a way to restore confidence of the American people in their elected officials and the leaders of this country," he said. "One way you do that is by holding those folks who are ... lying to the FBI, you hold those folks accountable."

Senior White House aides have acknowledged their inability to rein in the president, but Trump's penchant for off-the-cuff observations could have serious implications for his own legal standing in the ongoing Mueller investigation.

On Saturday night, Trump posted that he had been forced to fire Flynn because the former Army lieutenant general had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Sergey Kislyak, then Russia's envoy to the U.S. But Trump also blamed the firing on Flynn having lied to the FBI, which the White House had not previously acknowledged knowing at that point. One of Trump's frequent critics, former Office of Government Ethics head Walter Shaub, seized on Trump's post, asking in his own: "Are you ADMITTING you knew Flynn had lied to the FBI when you asked Comey to back off Flynn?"

A number of legal experts said such an admission by Trump could expose him to accusations of obstructing justice.

Seeking to defuse the controversy, the president's personal lawyer, John Dowd, told ABC News that he drafted the tweet on Flynn's dismissal, characterizing it as "sloppy."

Also Sunday, Trump cast doubt on the impartiality of Mueller's investigation, citing reports that FBI agent Peter Strzok had been removed from the special counsel's team after an internal investigation of text messages he reportedly wrote that were interpreted as being critical of Trump. Mueller's office confirmed that Strzok was reassigned in late July.

(c)2017 Los Angeles Times

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