Trump Claims He Asked James Comey If He Was Under Investigation

May 11, 2017
Originally published on May 14, 2017 7:44 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And let's take a listen now to more of that interview that President Trump did with NBC News. He was speaking with Lester Holt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LESTER HOLT: Let me ask you about your termination letter to Mr. Comey. You write (reading) I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation.

Why did you put that in there?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Because he told me that. I mean, he told me that.

HOLT: He told you you weren't under investigation...

TRUMP: Yeah, and I've heard that...

HOLT: ...With regard to the Russia investigation.

TRUMP: I've heard that from others. I think...

HOLT: Was it in a phone call? Did you meet face to face?

TRUMP: I had a dinner with him. He wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on. We had a very nice dinner at the White House very early on.

HOLT: He asked for the dinner.

TRUMP: A dinner was arranged. I think he asked for the dinner. And he wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said, I'll, you know, consider. We'll see what happens.

SIEGEL: And then this later in the same exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOLT: Did you call him?

TRUMP: In one case, I called him. In one case, he called me.

HOLT: And did you ask, am I under investigation?

TRUMP: I actually asked him, yes. I said, if it's possible, will you let me know, am I under investigation? He said, you are not under investigation.

SIEGEL: Trump's description of that conversation raises some ethical questions about whether the president should have been asking Comey about ongoing investigations. And joining me now to examine those questions is Amy Jeffress. She's former counselor to the attorney general at the Department of Justice under the Obama administration and currently a partner at the law firm of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer. Welcome to the program.

AMY JEFFRESS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Was that conversation, as Donald Trump described it, does it strike you as, first of all, a legal conversation for the president to have with his head of the FBI?

JEFFRESS: I don't know that there's anything illegal about it, but it certainly must have put Director Comey in a very awkward position. The president is the one person who can fire the director - as he now has done. And so it would have been certainly more appropriate for the president to channel that question through his lawyer, the White House counsel, who has regular contacts with the Department of Justice and would have known what the policies are regarding sensitive communications like that.

SIEGEL: Are there any rules governing what someone should do in that case? That is, was the FBI director obliged to decline to answer or to not disclose who's under investigation?

JEFFRESS: The FBI director has to know that it - there are certainly rules around what he is allowed to divulge about an investigation. And it does raise a very puzzling question about what if the answer had been yes, and I don't know whether the president, if he asked Director Comey that question, had thought through what he would do if the answer had been yes.

SIEGEL: If he'd said, yes, you are under investigation, Mr. President...

JEFFRESS: I don't know that there's...

SIEGEL: ...That would've been a bad dinner from that point on. They could've been downhill. Given that this was, by the president's description, during a conversation about would he keep James Comey on as FBI director, does that change the appropriateness of the question?

JEFFRESS: Well, that's exactly right. That's why it makes it such an awkward question, if not illegal but certainly one that is was inappropriate and should not have been raised in a context like that.

SIEGEL: Some of Donald Trump's critics instantly cited the anger of so many Republicans over Bill Clinton's meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch when Hillary Clinton's emails were being investigated by the Justice Department. What's the difference?

JEFFRESS: Well, that's a very good analogy, and I think that there was a lot of criticism certainly about that encounter, even though they both said that they didn't actually discuss the ongoing investigation. So clearly, it's better not to discuss an ongoing criminal investigation.

SIEGEL: It's of questionable appropriateness, but we're not talking about a violation of law that was committed at that - in that conversation, if indeed that was the conversation.

JEFFRESS: No, I would not say it was illegal.

SIEGEL: Amy Jeffress, thanks for talking with us.

JEFFRESS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Amy Jeffress was, in the Obama administration, counselor to the attorney general of the Department of Justice and is now currently a partner at the law firm of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.