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Senate Republicans seeking Comey’s memos — and his testimony

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter

 WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee requested testimony from former FBI Director James Comey about his conversations with President Trump before his firing, and asked the FBI to turn over all Comey’s memos detailing his communications with senior White House officials about the investigation into Russian meddling in the election Wednesday afternoon.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also sent a bipartisan letter Wednesday requesting the memos within the week, and the House Oversight Committee requested Comey’s presence for a hearing next week.

The requests are intended to answer mounting questions over the bombshell New York Times report Tuesday that President Donald Trump asked Comey in a private Oval Office conversation to lay off investigating his former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Comey reportedly described the conversation in a memo, and similarly created a paper trail for every conversation he had with Trump about the Russia investigation.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., told reporters Tuesday that it was up to the New York Times to produce the memo to prove the story. But less than 24 hours later, he and his committee changed course and requested the documents.

The existence of the Comey memo was the third bombshell to explode on the Trump administration this week. Trump earlier tweeted that “Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press,” inviting questions about whether he bugged the Oval Office. The White House has not answered reporters’ questions about whether such tapes exist. Congressional Democrats have also demanded the White House release transcripts or recordings of Trump’s private Oval Office meeting with top Russian officials, during which the president divulged previously classified information about an ISIS plot that the United States had not shared with some of its top allies.

“I’ve got questions about the president’s comments about tapes, secret tapes,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. “We’ve got questions about transcripts from the meeting with the Russians. And we have questions about former Director Comey’s memo. And it’s just Wednesday.”

Warner said he expected a reply from Comey about whether he would testify early next week.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Senate Intelligence Committee, after a meeting to discuss recent revelations about classified information being shared with the Russians, May, 16, 2017. (Photo: Bill O’Leary/Washington Post via Getty Images)

Republicans are likely to ask Comey why he did not resign if he thought the president was attempting to obstruct justice and impede an FBI investigation. An emerging talking point from the White House and Trump allies is that the president was not pressuring Comey when he asked him to lay off Flynn — in one version, the remark was meant as a joke.

No matter what Comey says in his testimony, the scandal swirling around the White House has already sidelined Republican’s congressional agenda and led to chaos in the Capitol.

Sen. John McCain said Tuesday night that he believed the questions swirling around the White House had reached Watergate-level proportions. Talking to reporters Wednesday, he said a better comparison was the Iran-Contra scandal during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

“We got it investigated, we got all of it resolved and the president went on national television and we moved on and he became one of the greatest presidents, in my view, of the 20th century,” McCain said.

The senator is one of just a handful of Senate Republicans who wants a select committee in Congress to investigate the Russia allegations, separately from the Intelligence Committee. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, have also said they believe an independent prosecutor or independent commission could be necessary.

McCain said the Senate’s agenda will likely be sidelined until the issue is fully investigated and resolved.

“Things are tough right now,” McCain said of the mood among Senate Republicans. “We all know that. What do you think this is, a joy ride?”

Many Republicans were visibly annoyed at the distraction Wednesday. “I think people in America turn on the TV and think this is all that’s happening, this is all that we’re doing,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan. Ryan and his House leadership deputies started their press conference talking about tax reform, before being barraged with Russia and Comey questions from the press corps.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, May 17, 2017. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday that he could do with less “drama” from the White House. The Senate’s work on a health care bill has fallen from the headlines.

While some Republican lawmakers have minimized or downplayed the scandals (Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah., called them “overblown”), Warner said the investigation into Russian election interference and the Trump campaign remains bipartisan.

“I don’t know any member, publicly or privately, Democrat or Republican, that doesn’t think that Jim Comey deserves to tell his side of the story,” Warner said.

“I would love to have the memo, I would love for him to testify and I would love to have an open discussion about this as well,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., told reporters Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Democrats in the House are attempting to pressure their Republican colleagues into supporting a bill to create an independent commission to investigate Russian interference. The lawmakers introduced a “discharge petition” calling for the formation of the independent commission Wednesday. The discharge petition is a procedural tool to bypass the Republican-controlled committee process and force a floor vote on the matter.

“Republicans are not doing their job to hold the Republican president accountable, so it’s our job to do so,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. Cummings, the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, noted that the House committee investigating Russian interference had not issued a single subpoena in their investigation. “Speaker Ryan has shown he has zero, zero, zero appetite for any investigation of President Trump,” he said.