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Comey to testify that Trump tried to influence Russia probe

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Fired FBI Director Jim Comey will tell a Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday that President Donald Trump asked him for loyalty during White House conversations concerning the agency’s handling of investigations into current and former administration officials, including the president himself.

The committee released an advance copy of Comey’s seven-page opening statement a day before his scheduled appearance. This came shortly after the Director of National Intelligence and other top intelligence officials refused to answer the committee’s questions about Comey and the Russia investigation.

In his statement, he offers explosive details and accounts of five separate conversations he had with Trump, including strong suggestions the president tried to influence FBI investigations.

“The president said, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,’ ” Comey recounted about one White House meeting. “I didn’t move, speak or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.”

Statement to committee

In his prepared remarks, Comey said he told Trump on more than one occasion that he was not a subject of the FBI investigation into whether his associates had improper contacts with Russian government officials.

In another passage, Comey will testify that Trump asked him on February 14 to “let this go” of the investigation into Michael Flynn, who had been fired as national security adviser the previous day. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Comey quotes Trump as saying. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Trump last month flatly denied pressuring Comey to close or back down from the Flynn investigation. “No. No. Next question,” he replied to a reporter’s question.

At the same news conference, he dismissed allegations that members of his administration had colluded with Russia to influence the presidential election.

“The entire thing has been a witch hunt,” Trump said. “And there has been no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign (and Russia).”

White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was traveling with Trump to Cincinnati on Wednesday, told reporters aboard Air Force One that she “can’t imagine the president not standing by his own statement,” but referred reporters to presidential counsel for further questions.

“I do find the timing of the release a little bit interesting, directly after the testimony from the other hearing earlier today,” Sanders said.

FBI head fired in May

Trump fired Comey last month. The White House at first issued a statement saying the dismissal had been made on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who had sent a memo criticizing Comey’s handling of an investigation into former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Trump later contradicted that account, telling a reporter he was “thinking of the Russia thing“ at the time he fired Comey.

Presidential scholars say that, if confirmed, Comey’s version of events would represent a significant challenge to the traditional barriers meant to preserve the independence of U.S. law enforcement institutions.

“There is a level of concerning interaction between the president and the FBI that I don’t think we’ve seen since the Watergate era,” said Dan Mahaffee, executive director of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

Some Trump critics say accounts of his attempted intervention are not only inappropriate, but amount to obstruction of justice.

Comey’s testimony prompted strong reactions from Democrats in Congress.

Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House intelligence committee, called the allegations “troubling.”

In a statement, Schiff said the president’s interaction with Comey “represents yet another improper effort to coerce the intelligence agencies to do public relations for the White House and to undermine the independence and integrity of the intelligence community.”

GOP calls testimony not significant

Republican reaction was initially nonchalant. In a tweet, the Republican National Committee suggested Comey’s testimony was inconsequential.

Earlier Wednesday, two top U.S. intelligence officials told the Senate Intelligence Committee they did not feel inappropriately pressured by the president to publicly disavow possible Russian collusion with Trump aides in last year’s election.

But Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers told the Senate Intelligence Committee they would not discuss details of their White House meetings with Trump in recent months. They refused to answer questions about whether Trump asked them to intervene to curb the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.

“I’ve never felt pressure, to intervene or interfere in any way, with shaping intelligence, in a political way,” Coats said. “Or, in relationship to an ongoing investigation.”

A Washington Post report Wednesday said in March, less than a week after the Senate confirmed Coats to oversee the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, Trump asked him to intervene with then-FBI Director Comey to back off an investigation of Trump’s first national security adviser, Flynn, whom Trump fired after just 24 days on the job for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Sergei Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to Washington.

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