President Trump and his private attorney Marc Kasowitz were planning to “go to war” with James Comey, but they now feel “totally vindicated” after reviewing the former FBI director’s opening remarks about the government’s probe of Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election, FOX Business has learned.
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Kasowitz held a meeting with Trump earlier Wednesday to review Comey’s prepared statements for Thursday’s scheduled Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on interference by Russian operatives in the election. The text of Comey’s remarks was released publicly Wednesday and Kasowitz’s meeting with Trump took place just before the president left the White House to give a speech in Cincinnati on his health care reform plans, and efforts to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.
People close to Kasowitz say the feisty New York Attorney—who has for years handled some of Trump’s most contentious legal matters when the president was a private businessman—was preparing a public relations assault on Comey by attacking the former FBI director’s credibility.
Comey became a focal point of the 2016 election with his controversial public statements about the FBI inquiry into the use of a private email server by Trump’s democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton. Comey has received bipartisan criticism for inserting himself into the presidential election through public comments about the probe since FBI officials are normally reticent about discussing details of investigations. Clinton has stated publicly that she believes his remarks -- where he closed, opened, and then closed the probe--cost her the election.
Indeed Trump used those public statements as a predicate for firing Comey in May—a move that ultimately backfired on the president because it came just as the FBI was expanding its probe into possible collusion between Trump campaign operatives and Russians officials.
But at least for now, Kasowitz has dropped going after Comey directly after reviewing the text of his opening statement for the Intelligence Committee hearing, people close to Kasowitz tell FOX Business.
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Instead Kasowitz plans to embrace some of Comey’s statements, particularly those that confirmed that Trump is not the focus of the probe, and that he didn’t directly call for the FBI chief to end the inquiry, thus obstructing justice, these people add.
As first reported by FOX Business, Kasowitz was retained two weeks by Trump after the appointment of Robert Mueller as a special prosecutor to investigate whether Trump campaign operatives colluded with Russian spies to tilt the election in Trump’s favor. The controversy over Russian meddling into the election has already forced the resignation Michael Flynn as Trump’s national security adviser.
In a statement, Kasowitz said: “The president is pleased that Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the president was not under investigation in any Russian probe. The president feels completely and totally vindicated. He is eager to continue to move forward with his agenda.”
Comey was abruptly fired by Trump as FBI chief on May 9, after a series of strained meetings with the president over the FBI’s handling of the probe and its focus on Flynn, a key Trump associate and campaign adviser. Flynn is said to have misled the White House on his interaction with Russian officials during the campaign. Flynn said he’s done nothing wrong.
The burgeoning probe into Russian influence of the 2016 election has been a major distraction for the president in pushing his economic agenda through Congress. White House officials worried Comey’s testimony on Thursday would inflame the situation even further by inciting the volatile Trump to make a public remark, particularly through his Twitter account, that could be used as evidence to build a possible obstruction case against the president.
In his prepared remarks, Comey confirmed published reports that Trump, during one meeting regarding his probe of Flynn, stated: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Comey said in the text of his opening remarks that he reconstructed his conversations with Trump in memos and then shared them with senior FBI officials.
But Kasowitz believes Comey’s own words will exculpate Trump from any potential charge of obstruction of justice that the special prosecutor will certainly look into. That’s because in Comey’s own recollection, he told Trump he wasn’t the target of the inquiry and Trump didn’t directly order him to close the probe into Flynn, these people say.
As for Trump’s firing of Comey, Kasowitz believes Trump has the legal authority to do so as president as long as he didn’t obstruct the overall investigation; Comey in his prepared remarks stops short of calling Trump’s actions an obstruction of his investigation.
Of course Kasowitz could change course and go on the attack against Comey, depending on what the former FBI chief says under questioning from lawmakers on Thursday. But as of now, one person with direct knowledge of Kasowitz’s legal strategy says he’s “trying to figure out what we should do next. The FBI director told the president that he wasn’t the subject of the investigation. There might be a special counsel investigation into other things but it shouldn’t be with the president.”
Some legal experts believe Comey’s testimony could still be damaging to Trump even if the legal grounds to bring obstruction charges lack precedent. Comey said at one point Trump discussed with him whether he wanted to stay on as FBI chief, remarking “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
While the FBI director is appointed by the president, the agency is considered an independent investigative arm of the Justice Department. John Coffee, Columbia Law School professor, said that such remarks “Arguably, could show obstruction of justice, but the real question on which you should focus is: Can a sitting President be indicted.”
Coffee said most legal experts believe that the president, given his role as commander-in-chief under the Constitution, probably can’t be indicted. Instead he must be impeached through an act of Congress.
“All of this is relatively uncharted legal territory,” he added.