ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Tomorrow morning, in one of the most anticipated congressional appearances in recent memory former, FBI Director James Comey will testify before the Senate intelligence committee. The committee raised the stakes even higher by releasing the prepared statement of what the fired FBI director will say about his contacts with President Trump. This evening, a lawyer for Trump released a statement saying the president feels completely and totally vindicated.
NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following the controversy. She's with us now to talk about it. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: The Senate intelligence committee has released James Comey's opening statement, the beginning of his testimony for tomorrow. What's new in it?
JOHNSON: Well, James Comey says he had nine conversations in just four months with President Trump, and after each one of them, Robert, he decided to take notes. The first time during the transition, he left Trump Tower in New York, returned to his FBI car and jotted down notes on a laptop.
Then, the next meeting a week after the inauguration, Comey describes a dinner that President Trump invited him to attend. To Comey's surprise, the table in the Green Room was set for two. The president asked Comey if he wanted to keep his job, which Comey interpreted as pressure. Then Trump allegedly said, I need loyalty; I expect loyalty. Comey says he didn't reply. They stared at each other in silence. And according to Comey, Trump kept up that pressure for months.
SIEGEL: Pressure of what sort?
JOHNSON: Well, pressure like Trump pulling him aside after a meeting in February at the White House, asking others to leave the room, then, according to Comey, telling him, I hope you can see your way clear to letting National Security Adviser Michael Flynn go. In other words, drop the investigation into false statements Flynn allegedly made, not the broader Russia investigation.
Comey said he was concerned. He mentioned it to the attorney general, said he didn't want to be left alone with Trump any more. But he was. In fact, Donald Trump called Comey two more times. Comey says the president was fixated on getting the word out that he, Trump, was not personally under investigation. And Trump described the Russia investigation as a cloud hanging over his presidency. Comey says he had nine meetings or talks with Trump. He only describes five of them here. So we'll find out more tomorrow about those other ones.
SIEGEL: Yeah, he says Trump wanted the word to get out that he, Trump, was not under investigation. Was President Trump under investigation?
JOHNSON: Not directly, according to James Comey. Comey says he was reluctant to say that in public, though, because if the investigation continued and took a different turn, he'd be obliged to correct the record. And the president certainly wouldn't like that being corrected.
There was one final call in April. Trump allegedly asked what Comey had done to get the word out Trump was not under investigation. I've been very loyal to you, Trump said, according to Comey, but that loyalty ended with his surprise firing in May.
SIEGEL: Well, is there anything in what we learned today that amounts to obstruction of justice?
JOHNSON: Well, that's being debated heavily by legal experts, and it's going to be a big question for the special counsel, Robert Mueller. You can draw a straight line from Comey's firing to the appointment of that independent prosecutor.
Now, in cases of obstruction, intent matters. Some lawyers are telling me this pattern, the timeline starting in January of the president stewing over this FBI investigation, asking for a loyalty oath from James Comey, allegedly asking the FBI and others to go light on Michael Flynn are certainly worthy of a close look by investigators at the FBI and the Justice Department. Of course Comey says he declined to take a loyalty pledge, and then he lost his job.
SIEGEL: Is there a more benign reading of what happened?
JOHNSON: Well, the White House and its Republican allies on Capitol Hill say the president had every ability and authority to fire Comey, period. They say there was more than enough reason to do it because of his mishandling of the Hillary Clinton matter, because Comey had to correct the record in Congress earlier this year and because Comey, in Donald Trump's words, is a grandstander and a showboat.
SIEGEL: Just one other point - Comey said he had nine exchanges with Donald Trump in four months. He said that he had two exchanges with President Obama during all those years, and one of them was just to say goodbye.
JOHNSON: Robert, that's because the FBI director is not supposed to be talking one-on-one with the president.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thanks.
JOHNSON: You're welcome.
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