Who told Trump he was in the clear? Not us, key senators say

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
President Trump is interviewed by NBC’s Lester Holt on Thursday. (Photo: Joe Gabriel/NBC News via AP)

Just hours after White House spokesman Sean Spicer said President Trump had received assurances from a key senator that the idea of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia was a “hoax,” a spokesman for the senator, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, denied any such conversation.

“Sen. Grassley has not spoken to President Trump about what he has learned in briefings related to investigations into Russian interference in our elections, and he has never referred to the notion of collusion as a ‘hoax,’” Grassley’s spokesman, Taylor Foy, emailed Yahoo News. Grassley is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and together with ranking minority member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has been briefed on details of the FBI investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election.

Foy’s statement seemed to directly contradict Spicer’s remarks earlier Friday, raising new questions about the credibility of White House accounts of the firing of FBI Director James Comey. “I think the president’s comments about Russia and collusion have been very clear with respect to some of the charges that have been made,” Spicer said. “He’s been very clear that he believes that the notion there’s collusion is a hoax. It’s been reaffirmed by several people, including Sen. Grassley and others who have spoke to him.”

The dispute grew out of comments the president made in an interview this week with NBC News anchor Lester Holt, that he “knew” he was not under criminal investigation because it was “stated at the committee, at some committee level, that I wasn’t.”

But Comey, when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, had specifically declined to say whether President Trump was under investigation, saying only that he had briefed Grassley and Feinstein behind closed doors about who the bureau had opened cases on. When asked by Yahoo News earlier Friday whether Grassley had shared any of that information with Trump or anybody at the White House, spokesman Foy had emailed: “The answer to your question is no.”

Feinstein’s spokesman made a similar denial; so did the offices of Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Mark Warner, D-Va., the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who also received classified FBI briefings.

In his second emailed statement late Friday, Foy went on to say: “In fact, just today, he [Grassley] and Senator Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, called on the Justice Department and the FBI to brief the full committee on the investigation into Russian interference. The bipartisan request is intended to ensure that all Judiciary Committee senators, both Republicans and Democrats, have a better understanding of what went on and where the investigation stands.”

In his interview with Holt this week, Trump repeated a claim he had first made in his letter firing Comey Tuesday night — that the former FBI director had assured him on three separate occasions that he was not being investigated as part of the Russia probe. One of those occasions was at a dinner during which, in Trump’s account, Comey asked to be allowed to stay on his job.

A different account was given to the New York Times by associates of Comey, who said the FBI director had recounted that the president had asked for his  “loyalty,” and that Comey instead offered only his “honesty.”

It was unclear what committee or testimony Trump was referring to when he said “at the committee, at some committee level.” The question of whether the president himself was under investigation did not directly come up when Comey first testified in public about the Russia probe before the House Intelligence Committee on March 20. But in his May 3 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Comey was pressed by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to say whether the FBI had “ruled out the president of the United States” as a subject of the investigation.

“I don’t — I don’t want people to over-interpret this answer, I’m not going to comment on anyone in particular, because that puts me down a slope of — because if I say no to that, then I have to answer succeeding questions,” Comey replied.

Comey at that point did mention that he had, in a separate closed-door meeting, briefed the chairman and ranking member of the committee on “who the U.S. persons are that we’ve opened investigations on. And that’s — that’s as far as we’re going to go, at this point.”

Comey has been invited to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee to discuss the circumstances of his firing, but he declined to testify.

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