WASHINGTON - Republican lawmakers are pressing the White House to release tapes of key conversations President Donald Trump had with fired FBI director James Comey, if the recordings exist.
The tapes would likely settle the issue of whether Trump at a White House dinner in February urged Comey, then leading the FBI's probe of Russian meddling in last year's U.S. presidential election, to drop the agency's investigation of Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Trump had fired Flynn for lying about his contacts with Russia's ambassador to Washington.
In a dramatic account to lawmakers last week, Comey testified that he felt that Trump, by telling him he hoped Comey would "let go" of the Flynn probe, had inappropriately directed him to end the investigation. That was an edict at odds with the normal separation of criminal investigations from White House oversight. Comey also testified that Trump asked him to pledge his personal loyalty, which Comey declined to do, and to "lift the cloud" of the Russia investigation.
Trump has disputed Comey's account of the conversation about Flynn as inaccurate, although his oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., a frequent defender of his father's White House performance, seemed to confirm the gist of it.
"When he tells you to do something, guess what, there's no ambiguity in it," Trump Jr., speaking of his father, told Fox News on Sunday. "There's no, 'Hey, I'm hoping.' You and I are friends, 'Hey I hope this happens, but you've got to do your job.' That's what he told Comey."
Existence of tape in question
Before Comey testified, Trump suggested there might be a White House recording of their private dinner, with Comey saying he hopes there is. But the president and his aides have not definitively said so. Pressed on the issue Friday, he said, "I'll tell you about that maybe sometime in the very near future."
The White House again Monday refused to say one way or the other whether there was a tape.
Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that heard Comey's testimony, said Sunday, "I don't understand why the president just doesn't clear this matter up once and for all."
Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, another member of the Senate panel, said, "We've obviously pressed the White House."
Trump fired Comey last month. Trump later said he was thinking about "this Russia thing" as he decided to dismiss him because he considered claims that Russian interference in the election influenced it in his favor to be bogus, an excuse by Democrats to account for his stunning upset of former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
Questions over the existence of the tape of the key Comey-Trump meeting came as the Senate panel awaits public testimony Tuesday from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his dealings with Comey. Comey had said that he felt his conversations with Trump were so inappropriate that he asked Sessions to make sure Comey never again was alone with the president.
During his nearly three hours of testimony last week, Comey cryptically told the Senate panel that the FBI had "additional facts" about Sessions he could "not discuss in an open setting."
The White House said Monday it might invoke executive privilege to block at least part of Sessions's testimony when it deals with his conversations with Trump.
Sessions, because of his own meetings last year with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, recused himself from his handling of oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's probe of the Russian interference in the election.
In Twitter comments since Comey's testimony, Trump has claimed "complete vindication" of any involvement with Russian officials during the campaign and the early part of his presidency because the former FBI chief testified that through May 9, when Trump fired him, Comey said that Trump was not being investigated. A special counsel, Robert Mueller, another former FBI director, was subsequently named to conduct a criminal probe of the Russian interference and whether Trump aides illegally colluded with Moscow to help Trump win.
"I believe the James Comey leaks will be far more prevalent than anyone ever thought possible," Trump wrote Sunday. "Totally illegal? Very 'cowardly!'"
U.S. legal experts have said Comey's leaking of the notes of his February 14 conversation with Trump to a friend who passed it on to The New York Times was likely not illegal because the information was not classified.