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Comey: Trump demanded ‘loyalty’

WASHINGTON — Former FBI Director James Comey is expected to tell a U.S. Senate committee today that President Donald Trump demanded his “loyalty” and asked him to let fired national security adviser Michael Flynn off the hook in connection with the FBI’s investigations into the Russian government and Trump’s presidential campaign.

The former FBI director will also tell lawmakers that he informed Trump that he was not personally under investigation.

On Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, questioned acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats about conversations they had with Comey and the president.

Comey’s planned remarks are included in written testimony released Wednesday ahead of his highly anticipated appearance before the intelligence committee today. While the FBI director is a subordinate of the president, he or she is expected to be nonpartisan and not subject to political pressure.

Marc Kasowitz, an attorney representing Trump in the special counsel’s probe of Russia’s 2016 election interference, said Wednesday that Comey’s statement “vindicated” the president. In a letter Trump wrote to Comey firing him as FBI director on May 9, he noted that Comey told him he was not under investigation. The ousted FBI chief’s testimony to be delivered today says he had, indeed, told Trump that he “was not under investigation in any Russian probe.”

“The president feels completely and totally vindicated,” Kasowitz said in a statement Wednesday. “He is eager to move forward with his agenda.”

Kasowitz’s statement did not address Comey’s comments about Trump’s pressuring him to shield Flynn from any FBI investigation. Some critics of the president contend the action would amount to obstruction of justice, a federal crime.

Comey’s testimony will be his first public comments since Trump abruptly fired him in early May. At the time, Comey was overseeing the federal investigation into possible ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s election meddling.

The Justice Department then appointed another former FBI director, Robert Mueller, as special counsel in the investigation.

Comey’s testimony is based on his written memos of interactions he had with Trump, some of which he says he shared with senior FBI leadership. Comey describes at length a Feb. 14 meeting in the Oval Office in which he believed Trump asked him to drop any investigation of Flynn’s contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.

“He then said, ‘I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go,’ ” Comey’s testimony says, according to the prepared remarks. “I replied only that ‘he is a good guy.’ ”

Asked whether the president stood by earlier assertions that he had neither sought Comey’s loyalty nor asked for the Flynn investigation to be dropped, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: “I can’t imagine the president not standing by his own statement.”

Meanwhile on Wednesday, Democratic members of the intelligence committee asked McCabe and Coats about their interactions with Comey and the president.

Both men declined to answer the questions, leading to tense exchanges.

Heinrich asked McCabe whether Comey had told him Trump asked for his loyalty. Heinrich then asked Coats whether Trump had asked him to help blunt investigations into his campaign’s relationship with Russia. Both McCabe and Coats refused to answer Heinrich’s questions.

“I think your unwillingness to answer a very basic question speaks volumes,” Heinrich told Coats.

After the hearing, Heinrich told the Journal the non-answers were frustrating, but also revealing.

“I think they paint a pretty clear picture,” Heinrich said. “The more they refuse to answer a question that would obviously make so many things (controversies) go away, it sort of speaks for itself. It is frustrating because they have not invoked executive privilege and they have no legal basis.”

Heinrich’s questioning of the government officials generated lots of chatter on social media, with CNN contributor Rebecca Berg tweeting that the typically low-key junior senator from New Mexico is the intelligence committee’s “stealth bomber.”

Asked whether Comey’s testimony, in which he says Trump asked him to shield Flynn from an FBI inquiry, amounts to obstruction of justice, Heinrich noted that he isn’t a lawyer and said he wasn’t sure.

“I think the fact that Director Comey felt that there was a loyalty test and felt like the president was trying to create, a — I believe the phrase was a ‘patronage relationship’ — I think those things should be very, very concerning,” Heinrich said.

Some congressional Republicans contend that Comey should have notified Congress earlier if Trump was asking him to behave inappropriately, but Heinrich said the criticism amounts to “trying to change the subject.”

“It doesn’t deal with the fundamental question of what was the relationship here between the Trump campaign and the Russians and was there interference in a law enforcement investigation,” Heinrich said.