The nation’s top intelligence official told associates in March that President Trump asked him if he could intervene with then-FBI Director James B. Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn in its Russia probe, according to officials.
On March 22, less than a week after being confirmed by the Senate, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats attended a briefing at the White House together with officials from several government agencies. As the briefing was wrapping up, Trump asked everyone to leave the room except for Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
The president then started complaining about the FBI investigation and Comey’s handling of it, said officials familiar with the account Coats gave to associates. Two days earlier, Comey had confirmed in a congressional hearing that the bureau was probing whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia during the 2016 race.
After the encounter, Coats discussed the conversation with other officials and decided that intervening with Comey as Trump had suggested would be inappropriate, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters.
The events involving Coats show the president went further than just asking intelligence officials to deny publicly the existence of any evidence showing collusion during the 2016 election, as The Washington Post reported in May. The interaction with Coats indicates that Trump aimed to enlist top officials to have Comey curtail the bureau’s probe.
Coats will testify on Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Lawmakers on the panel said they would press him for information about his interactions with the president regarding the FBI investigation.
The question of whether the president obstructed the Russia investigation is expected to take center stage this week with Comey’s highly anticipated testimony on the Hill on Thursday. Comey associates say that before the director was fired in May, the president had asked him to drop the investigation into Flynn, and Comey refused.
Brian P. Hale, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), declined to comment on whether Trump asked Coats to intervene with Comey regarding the Flynn investigation. Hale said in a statement: “Director Coats does not discuss his private conversations with the President. However, he has never felt pressured by the President or anyone else in the Administration to influence any intelligence matters or ongoing investigations.”
A spokesman for Pompeo declined to comment on the closed-door discussions. The White House referred questions to outside lawyers, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.