The Mueller Probe, Part 1: A Recusal and Comey's Notes

On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump won the Presidency.  Ten days later, he announced that he would nominate Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to become the attorney general.  The nomination was somewhat controversial from the start as various interest groups lined up for and against him, but no one could deny credentials.  He became a US Senator after a two-year stint as the attorney general for Alabama, and held the post as Senator for 20 years before Trump announced his nomination which would have to be confirmed by the new Congress in 2017.

Since the Russia election interference narrative was very much alive at this time, Sessions was asked during his hearing whether he had contact with any Russian officials during the campaign and Sessions stated that he did not.  On March 1, 2017 reports surfaced that Sessions had met twice with the Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak during the campaign.  

The first meeting was during a Heritage Foundation event at the RNC convention in Cleveland which was attended by ambassadors from several countries besides Kislyak.  The second meeting took place on September 8, 2016 in his Senate office where they discussed terrorism and Ukraine, according to Sessions.  Sessions was the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and had met with ambassadors from many countries.  Records show that he met with ambassadors from Great Britain, South Korea, India, Japan, Poland, China, Canada, Germany, and 16 other countries while being both a Senator and campaign adviser.  

Upon the revelations of the meetings, some in the Senate demanded he step down since he testified he never met with any Russian officials.  Some went further and accused him of perjury.  Sessions countered that in the discussions with Kislyak, the campaign was never discussed, nor the possibility of a Trump presidency.  However, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) suggested that Sessions should recuse himself from any investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and March 2, 2017 he did just that.  

As a result, the task of leading any such investigation would fall to deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.  At some point in March 2017, Democrat senators requested the FBI to investigate whether Sessions had committed perjury before the Judiciary Committee.  That job was handled by Andrew McCabe whose investigation concluded without any charges.

The recusal decision angered President Trump.  He argued that since Sessions insisted he did nothing wrong, there was no reason for recusal.  Relations between the two grew testy with Trump insisting on at least three occasions that Sessions reverse his recusal, which Sessions refused.  

Soon after the recusal announcement, FBI director James Comey testified before Congress that the FBI had an ongoing investigation into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.  The Crossfire Hurricane probe was made public for the first time, and that it started on July 31, 2016 making it one of Washington’s best kept secrets.  However, it is highly probable that upon becoming the attorney general, Sessions knew of the investigation unless the FBI kept it secret from him also which would be highly irregular.  In January 2017, in a hearing specifically about Russian interference in the election, Comey had confirmed there was an ongoing investigation but never mentioned the Trump campaign specifically.

The FBI director serves a ten-year term and it is designed that way to keep the agency free of political influence.  Trump decided to keep Comey on as FBI director, although he had the right to replace him upon being sworn in as President.  Early in the presidency, Comey and Trump held several private meetings after which Comey drafted notes to memorialize the meetings.  The first was about his January 6, 2017 meeting with Trump where the evidence of Russian interference was laid out.  The gist of their private meeting was:

  1. Trump said Comey was placed in an impossible situation with respect to the Clinton email investigation;
  2. Trump said he intended to keep Comey on as FBI director;
  3. Comey personally told Trump of the more salacious accusations in the Steele dossier which Trump denied;
  4. Comey warned Trump that CNN was looking for a hook to make the dossier’s contents public and that Trump seemed surprised the information was not already made public, and;
  5. Trump started to defend himself against previous accusations of sexual impropriety and Comey told him those things were not under investigation.

The second meeting occurred over dinner after Trump was sworn in and was in the White House on January 27, 2017.  Comey described the conversation as “chaotic” with topics dropped and returned to later.  Some of the conversation was personal about the “viciousness” of the campaign, a defense by Trump of some of his comments on the campaign trail, and his son’s height.  The pertinent parts of the conversation are:

  1. Trump once again asks Comey if he intends to stay on and that there were several people seeking his job.  Comey told Trump he had the right to let him go as FBI director, but he intended to stay on;
  2. In an interesting remark, Comey said: “I don’t leak.  I don’t do weasel moves;”
  3. Trump said he expected loyalty from administration officials;
  4. Trump knew the sequence of events regarding Comey’s probe into Clinton’s emails where Comey laid out his thinking with Trump interested in what other FBI officials thought of his July 5, 2016 exoneration of Clinton;
  5. Trump asked if McCabe had anything personal against him;
  6. They compared Eric Holder against Loretta Lynch;
  7. Trump returned to the subject of the so-called “golden showers” incident and said he talked to people with him in Moscow at the time;
  8. They discussed who Comey should report to in the White House and Trump suggested Reince Priebus.  Comey suggested Flynn;
  9. Trump expressed reservations about Flynn concerning a toast Trump made to British prime minister Theresa May.

The next meeting started out with a private conversation between Comey and Reince Priebus where they discussed the dossier, which had been published, and leaks in general on February 7th or 8th.  Priebus specifically asked if there was an active FISA warrant on Mike Flynn.  The two then went to the Oval Office and met with Trump.  

The President was particularly concerned about the recent publication of transcripts of his calls with leaders in Australia and Mexico and assumed the leaks came from within the administration.  The conversation turned to the “golden showers thing” where Trump again asserted his innocence and said he usually took precautions when traveling overseas under the assumption that he was being bugged or surveilled.  

On February 14, 2017 Comey stayed behind in the Oval Office after a meeting with others regarding homeland security.  During the meeting, Trump confided that he was thinking of letting Flynn go because he lied to Pence.  He considered Flynn a “great guy” who had “done nothing wrong” by talking to Kislyak, but misleading Pence was his main concern.  Although the conversation largely centered on the leaked calls with foreign leaders, Trump returned to Flynn and told Comey: “I hope you can see your way clear, to letting Flynn go.  He is a good guy.  I hope you can let this go.”  

A March 30 phone call between the two was memorialized in a memo when Trump discussed the “Russian cloud” hanging over his administration being a distraction.  Comey told Trump he was not the subject of any ongoing investigation.  Trump also said he did not know nor ever met Sergei Millian whose name was circulating in the press.  Comey also emailed Rosenstein about the phone call since Rosenstein was now in charge of the Russian investigation.  

On April 11th, another phone call was the subject of notes where Trump asked Comey if he could publicly note that Trump was not under investigation and that he relayed that previous request to Rosenstein.  The April 11th recollection of the phone call is the last note Comey kept of his interactions with Trump.

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