President Donald Trump asked former FBI Director James Comey to drop the agency's investigation into his former national security adviser Michael Flynn in February, according to a memo written by Comey, a portion of which was published by the New York Times Tuesday evening. The memo was also confirmed by several news organizations, including VICE News.
"I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go," Trump said, according to the memo, which was reportedly written contemporaneously by Comey. Trump emphasized that Flynn had done nothing wrong, reportedly telling Comey, "He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."
According to the memo, Comey responded, "I agree he is a good guy."
The FBI was investigating Flynn, Trump and his associates over potential collusion with Russia when Trump made the request. Trump reportedly summoned Comey to the Oval Office to make his case just one day after Flynn resigned over allegations that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
In order for Trump's behavior to amount to a criminal obstruction of justice, he would have likely have to implicitly or explicitly threaten to fire Comey, said Richard Painter, George W. Bush's former chief ethics lawyer. According to the New York Times' reporting, the memo did not document if Trump conveyed such a threat, though Trump did end up firing Comey last week.
In an interview with NBC's Lester Holt Thursday, Trump explicitly denied asking Comey to drop the investigation.
"No, never," he said. "In fact, I want the investigation speeded up."
It's currently unclear what the legal implications of Comey's memo will be. Comey, however, kept careful memos documenting his interactions with the president.
"I don't know if urging the FBI to end an investigation is itself a criminal act of obstruction of justice," Painter told VICE News. "But it's clearly an abuse of power for the president to be trying to get the FBI director to close an investigation for criminal conduct by members of his administration."
Whether the memo's contents are enough to impeach Trump is not a legal question but a political matter for Congress to decide, Painter said. "We know that lying about your sex life can get you impeached. That's up to Congress, and obviously it all turns on politics."
The White House denied the report.
"While the president has repeatedly expressed his view that General Flynn is a decent man who served and protected our country, the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn," the White House told the New York Times in a statement. "The president has the utmost respect for our law enforcement agencies, and all investigations. This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey."
Politico spoke to an unnamed friend of Comey's who described the memo: "It is very rich in detail and hopefully it will come out soon. There are other memos about his meetings too. He wrote down every word Trump said to him as soon as he could."
A Department of Justice spokesperson told VICE News the department declined to comment.
Shortly after the New York Times published its story, FT and CNN independently confirmed the newspaper's reporting. A source told CNN that Trump's request so appalled Comey, he felt compelled to document it.