Fired FBI director Comey agrees to testify as report says 'person of interest' in White House

(KTVU and AP) As President Donald Trump and the First Lady departed for his first overseas tour Friday, the investigation at home into Russian meddling in U.S. took another turn.

The Washington Post reported that a current senior adviser close to the president is a "person of interest" in the FBI investigation.

The report cited no names, but son-in-law Jared Kushner, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are thought to be possibilities.

Kushner, who was named as a senior advisor, was present at a December meeting when former national security adviser Michael Flynn spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak.

The President earlier had called the investigation a "witch hunt" in a May 18th tweet. That sparked disagreement from even some. Republicans, who say former FBI director Robert Mueller's appointment as special counsel is important.

"Well, I don't personally believe in witches. But, look, the director's job is in fact, to go where the facts lead," said Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California.

"I think we need to pull politics out of this as much as possible and for those same reasons, I like Mueller," said Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland.

Late Friday, a report by the New York Times cited a document from an anonymous source that said during the May 10th Oval Office meeting with Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyav, President Trump derided the former FBI director James Comey, who was heading up the FBI investigation into Russian interference, relieved "great pressure."

"I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job," the Times reported that Trump said during the May 10 meeting. "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."

The White House did not deny the report. White House spokesman Sean Spicer called the president's rhetoric part of his deal-making.

"By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia's actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia," Spicer said. "The investigation would have always continued, and obviously the termination of Comey would not have ended it. Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations."

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein testified for a second day on Capitol hill.  He said he stands by his memo critical of Comey, but did not intend it as cause for Comey's termination.

Democrats and some Republicans called for a vote on a bill to form an independent commission, which would be tasked with going beyond the criminal investigation and make recommendations to prevent any future foreign interference.

"I came out more sure that it was absolutely essential that we have this outside independent commission." said House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

Late Friday, the Senate intelligence committee announced that Comey had agreed to testify at an open hearing at an undetermined date after Memorial Day.

Comey will certainly be asked about encounters that precipitated his firing, including a January dinner in which, Comey has told associates, Trump asked for his loyalty. In the Oval Office weeks later, Comey told associates, the president asked him to shut down an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Comey is known to produce memos documenting especially sensitive or unsettling encounters, such as after the February meeting.

The new headlines were a fresh indication that Trump would not be able to change the subject from what appears to be an intensifying investigation reaching toward the president and his inner circle.

As for the separate report of a "person of interest" under investigation, the Post said the senior White House adviser "under scrutiny" is someone close to the president but did not name the person.

Among Trump's senior White House advisers are several former campaign officials, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway. In March, Kushner volunteered to answer lawmakers' questions about meetings he had with Russian officials during the transition.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan said he would not discuss information provided in classified briefings and said the House Oversight committee had already asked for documents related to Comey's firing.

Earlier this week, the Justice Department appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to take over the federal investigation in an effort to re-establish independence from the White House.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told Congress Friday he stands by a memo he wrote bluntly criticizing Comey. But he made clear it was not his intention for Trump or other White House officials to use the document to justify firing Comey, which is what they have done.

In closed-door meetings with lawmakers on Thursday and Friday, Rosenstein said he wrote the memo after Trump told him one day before the May 9 firing that he wanted to dismiss Comey. Rosenstein said that though he was personally fond of Comey, "I thought it was appropriate to seek a new leader."

The Justice Department on Friday released the text of Rosenstein's opening remarks for the briefings on Capitol Hill.

Trump has said he plans to nominate a new FBI director soon, but there was no announcement Friday.

The appointment of Mueller as special counsel has drawn generally favorable comments from Democrats and from some Republicans as well. But lawmakers at both congressional sessions expressed frustration that Rosenstein would say little in answer to their questions about his actions -- or others' -- before Comey's firing.

"There was considerable frustration in the room," said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a member of the Armed Services Committee. "This renewed my confidence that we should not have confidence in this administration. I don't think (Rosenstein) did a lot to bolster our confidence in him today."

The White House has struggled since Comey's firing to explain the chain of events that led to it and the Justice Department's involvement in that decision. Trump has insisted at times that the decision was his alone, but he also has pointed to the "very strong" recommendation from Rosenstein.

Rosenstein made it clear to the lawmakers that he drafted his memo only after Trump told him of his plans to dismiss the FBI director. "My memorandum is not a statement of reasons to justify a for-cause termination," he said. But he added, "I wrote it. I believe it. I stand by it."

The memo focused on Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, particularly the FBI director's decision to divulge details to the public at various junctures during her presidential campaign against Trump. Rosenstein denounced that decision as "profoundly wrong and unfair."

Trump has reacted furiously to the appointment of a special counsel, a prosecutor with wide authority to investigate Russia's interference and other potential crimes uncovered. However, at a combative news conference Thursday, he fell short in trying to resolve questions about investigations into his campaign and his first four months in office.

Asked point-blank if he'd done anything that might merit prosecution or even impeachment, Trump said no -- and then added of the lingering allegations and questions: "I think it's totally ridiculous. Everybody thinks so."


 

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