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Donald Trump is facing the deepest crisis of his presidency after contents of a memo written by James Comey when he was FBI director surfaced Tuesday, alleging that the president asked him to drop an investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
The White House was already on the defensive over the president's firing of Comey a week ago and over a report Monday that Trump disclosed sensitive intelligence to Russian officials. Then another political bombshell exploded Tuesday night.
After a conversation Comey had with Trump in February, a day after Flynn was ousted for what the White House said were misleading accounts of his conversations with Russia's U.S. ambassador, the FBI director wrote a memo documenting the Oval Office meeting. In it, Comey said the president asked him to abandon the Flynn investigation, according to a person who was given a copy of the memo and spoke on condition of anonymity.
"I hope you can let this go," Trump told the FBI director, according to the memo as cited by the New York Times, which first reported its existence. The contents of the memo have subsequently been confirmed by other news organizations, including Bloomberg, although the memo itself has not yet surfaced publicly.
The revelation raised questions about whether the president sought to influence the FBI at the same time the agency is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with Moscow by Trump associates. The memo's emergence, after Trump fired Comey, had congressional Democrats raising the specter that the president engaged in obstruction of justice, an impeachable offense.
One frustrated senior administration official questioned why Comey didn't complain to Department of Justice officials or to Congress if he thought Trump was trying to impede the Flynn investigation. Comey wrote the memo documenting the conversation with Trump because he was uneasy about the president's request, even though the FBI director didn't consider it a direct threat, said the person who received a copy. Trump said to Comey that Flynn was a good guy, to which Comey agreed, the person said.
It wasn't immediately clear who within the FBI received or saw the memo, or whether acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe was among them. The White House pointed to congressional testimony by McCabe last week in which he said there has been no effort to impede the FBI's probe.
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The chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, wrote a letter to McCabe on Tuesday demanding all FBI memos and other records documenting communications between Comey and Trump by May 24.
The turmoil spilled over into financial markets, as the S&P 500 Index slumped to a three-week low, the CBOE Volatility Index spiked the most since January, and Treasuries rallied with gold.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a Bloomberg Television interview on Tuesday that Republicans desire "less drama" from the White House. Several Republicans said Tuesday after the memo surfaced that Comey should testify to Congress. AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, said the Wisconsin Republican backed Chaffetz's demand for documents.
"If true, these memoranda raise questions as to whether the president attempted to influence or impede the FBI's investigation as it relates to Lt. Gen. Flynn," Chaffetz wrote.
Lawmakers need to hear Comey testify and get documents or transcripts of any meetings he had with Trump, Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, told CNN on Wednesday.
"Unfortunately the administration has given such conflicting information, the president's own tweets at times seem to contradict the statements made by staff," she said.
"I think we're at the position now where it's time for an independent commission or a special prosecutor or whatever," Kinzinger told CNN Wednesday, adding that it was the first time he had made such a call. "If in fact what was said in the memo is true, it's very concerning and we need to get to the bottom of that."
Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a member of the Judiciary Committee, called the memo as reported "powerful evidence of obstruction of justice."
He and other Democrats said Comey must testify before lawmakers about his conversations with the president.
"At best, President Trump has committed a grave abuse of executive power," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in a statement. "At worst, he has obstructed justice."
Second-ranking Senate Democrat Dick Durbin told reporters, "Each day as this unfolds, this pattern of obstruction of justice grows." The Illinois senator said he wants to see Comey's memos and hear his testimony in public.
Comey had been invited to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday but never accepted and indicated he would appear at another time.