WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump broke with longstanding White House protocol when he reportedly asked former FBI Director James Comey to go easy in his investigation of Michael Flynn, according to lawyers who served as attorney general and chief White House adviser under prior administrations.
Asked at a Wednesday conference if he could hypothetically conceive of a similar conversation between former President George W. Bush and a top law enforcement official about an ongoing criminal investigation, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey was emphatic.
“One-word answer: No,” Mukasey said.
Neil Eggleston, former President Barack Obama’s White House counsel during the last years of his administration, responded similarly.
“The White House stays out of criminal investigations, full stop. Full stop,” Eggleston said. “Never did it. Full stop. Never got involved.”
Comey had been leading the FBI investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials until Trump fired him last week. In February, a day after ousting Flynn, reportedly for misleading the vice president about previous contacts with the Russian ambassador, Trump asked Comey to go easy on Flynn, according to news reports citing a Comey memo on the meeting.
“I hope you can let this go,” Trump told Comey, according to a bombshell report published Tuesday in The New York Times detailing the memo the former FBI director wrote after meeting Trump.
Mukasey suggested that the informal nature in which Trump appears to have approached Comey and intervened on behalf of Flynn is not how things should be done at the White House.
“That conversation may be appropriate to a minor disciplinary matter in a corporation,” Mukasey said. “It’s not appropriate to a criminal investigation.”
Comey has since been invited to testify before two Senate committees, and has been asked to turn over his notes of his conversation with the president. Later on Wednesday, in response to mounting pressure, the Department of Justice appointed a special counsel for the Russia probe.
The former officials, both now in private practice, had been invited to speak at a panel on presidential power hosted by The Federalist Society, a conservative group that was key in helping Trump select and install Justice Neil Gorsuch on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The White House stays out of criminal investigations full stop.
Former White House counsel Neil Eggleston
Mukasey and Eggleston were asked to address a range of subjects related to the executive branch and its place in the separation of powers — as well as Trump’s unique status as one of the weakest chief executives in history. But the president’s dealings with the FBI director took center stage during their presentation.
Eggleston noted that because everything the White House does can get politicized, his job was to police what Obama could or couldn’t say with respect to any law enforcement investigation — including cases investigated by state authorities involving black men fatally shot by police.
“It was part of my view that the president of the United States, who is above the attorney general in the hierarchy, absolutely had to stay out of any criminal matter whatsoever,” Eggleston said.
Mukasey later reminded his co-panelist that Obama may have violated that general principle when he played down the importance of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server in 2015.
“He didn’t think there wouldn’t be any charges brought — a statement that I think was regarded in some quarters as the king’s wish,” Mukasey said.
Like a good lawyer speaking out for his client, Eggleston had a quick comeback, which drew an uproar from the audience: Obama “was talked to by the White House counsel after that.”