Fired FBI director James Comey sketched a case on Thursday that President Trump had obstructed justice by directing him to drop the bureau’s investigation of former national security advisor Michael Flynn.
In his first public comments since Trump forced him out of the agency, Comey described the president’s request as “stunning,” but consistently maintained that “it’s not for me to say” whether Trump had broken the law. That is an issue for special counsel Robert Mueller, he said. Still, over more than two hours of remarkable testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, he walked lawmakers through a series of events that closely track basic elements of a federal obstruction of justice charge.
Comey said Trump met alone with him in the Oval Office on Feb. 14, after asking his aides and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to leave the room. The then-FBI chief said Trump turned the discussion to Flynn, his former national security adviser, whom he had fired the day before. Flynn was then the subject of criminal investigations into a conversation he had with Russia’s ambassador and statements he had made about that contact. Flynn, Comey recalled Trump saying, was “a good guy,” and “I hope you can let this go.”
Comey said he took that as an order. “This is the president of the United States to me alone saying I hope this,” Comey said. “I took it as, this is what he wants me to do. I didn't obey that, but that's the way I took it.”
Whether that order would amount to obstruction of justice is harder to establish. Federal law broadly prohibits people from “corruptly” attempting to influence or interfere with law enforcement proceedings. But prosecutions for violating those laws are both comparatively rare — Justice Department records list 56 cases in which someone was found guilty of violating the laws since 2013 — and difficult. The government must prove that someone sought to influence the case and that their reasons for doing so were improper.
Still, former prosecutors said Comey’s testimony laid out sufficiently clear evidence to justify a deeper investigation of whether Trump had broken the law.
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