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The newest Trump-Russia investigation leaks ahead of Comey’s testimony, explained

Leaks are coming fast and furious before the high-stakes Senate hearing.

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Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

A swirl of leaks on a variety of matters related to the Russia investigation dogged the Trump White House Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, as a pair of high-stakes Senate Intelligence Committee hearings kicks off.

A Washington Post report revealed a new instance of President Donald Trump attempting to kill the FBI’s investigation into fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, in a way that closely paralleled President Richard Nixon’s actions during Watergate.

Meanwhile, fired FBI Director James Comey is preparing for his Senate testimony on Thursday, and CNN reports that he plans to dispute Trump’s assertions that he told Trump he was not under investigation. (Update: The CNN piece turned out to be inaccurate.)

Around the same time, the New York Times reported that shortly after Trump asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation, Comey told Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he didn’t ever want to be alone in a room with Trump again.

Then ABC News followed up a Times report on trouble in paradise between Trump and Sessions by revealing that Sessions recently offered to resign his post after getting harsh criticism from the president for recusing himself from the Russia investigation.

And the Post reported that Trump may in fact decide to live-tweet Comey’s testimony this Thursday. Here’s a rundown of what we learned.

In a Watergate-esque move, Trump asked the director of national intelligence to get Comey to back off Michael Flynn

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

First off, we learned of another apparent attempt by President Trump to get the FBI to drop its investigation of Michael Flynn, via a major scoop from the Washington Post’s Adam Entous.

It’s already been reported that Trump asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation, and that Comey documented the request in a memo. Furthermore, Entous and the Post’s Ellen Nakashima reported last month that Trump had urged Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and NSA Director Mike Rogers “to publicly deny the existence of any evidence” of collusion between his team and Russia, but that they refused to do it.

But Entous’s new story reports a new example of Trump personally trying to interfere with the FBI investigation to try to protect Flynn. After a White House briefing on March 22 — two days after Comey publicly confirmed the investigation into Trump’s team and Russia — Trump requested that everyone present leave the room except Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo (just as he reportedly did before he asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation).

Then, according to Entous’s sources (“officials” familiar with Coats’s description of what happened), Trump “started complaining about the FBI investigation and Comey’s handling of it.” He then asked Coats “if he could intervene” with Comey “to get the bureau to back off its focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn in its Russia probe.”

This is remarkably reminiscent of Watergate. The “smoking gun” that did in President Nixon, in the end, was a tape that revealed he ordered his chief of staff to get the CIA to stop the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate break-ins, as Dylan Matthews explains.

The difference here is that, so far as we know, Coats refused to carry out Trump’s request. Coats will surely be asked about this during his Senate testimony Wednesday morning, though he may decline to describe his private interactions with the president.

Trump claimed Comey told him three times that he wasn’t under investigation. Comey plans to testify that he did no such thing.

CNN’s Gloria Borger, Eric Lichtblau, Jake Tapper, and Brian Rokus report that when Comey testifies Thursday, he “will dispute President Donald Trump's blanket claim that he was told he was not under investigation multiple times.” They quote a source familiar with Comey’s thinking who says he “is expected to tell senators that he never assured Trump he was not under investigation, because such assurances would have been improper.”

In Trump’s letter firing Comey, he wrote, “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation." But Comey allies have anonymously suggested in the press that this is inaccurate.

However, the CNN reporters’ sources claim that Comey will try to keep his personal and legal opinions to a minimum during the testimony, instead attempting to be a “fact witness” by clearly describing his interactions with Trump. (He is not expected to testify about the Russia investigation itself, but he has indicated he’ll talk about Trump’s alleged attempts to interfere with the investigation.)

(Update: The above CNN report turned out to be inaccurate, as Comey’s testimony does in fact corroborate Trump’s assertion that Comey told him he was not under investigation.)

Then, in a piece for Vox, Murray Waas writes that Comey separately told three senior FBI officials — his chief of staff, Jim Rybicki; FBI general counsel James Baker; and then-Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe — about his interactions with Trump at the time, and that they could be “corroborating witnesses” for him.

Finally, the New York Times’s Michael Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo also report, citing “current and former law enforcement officials,” that after Trump first asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation, Comey “confronted Attorney General Jeff Sessions and said he did not want to be left alone again with the president.” However, Comey is said not to have told Sessions exactly why he made this request. Expect him to be asked about this on Thursday too.

Meanwhile, tensions between Trump and Jeff Sessions got so bad that Sessions suggested he could resign

Another eyebrow-raising scoop Tuesday night was a report from ABC News’s Jonathan Karl that Sessions recently offered to resign after repeated private criticism from President Trump.

Sessions has long appeared to be a die-hard Trump loyalist, and his former staffers are strewn throughout the administration, so this comes as a major surprise. But the attorney general apparently made one wrong move that Trump simply has not been able to get over — he recused himself from the investigation into Trump’s team and Russia back in March.

“Multiple sources say the recusal is one of the top disappointments of his presidency so far and one the president has remained fixated on,” Karl writes. “Two sources close to the president say he has lashed out repeatedly at the attorney general in private meetings, blaming the recusal for the expansion of the Russia investigation.” (With Sessions recused, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein took over the investigation once he was confirmed. But after Trump used a letter from Rosenstein as a phony pretext to justify firing Comey, Rosenstein was pressured into recusing himself and naming Robert Mueller as special counsel.)

The ABC report confirms a Monday night story from the New York Times’s Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman claiming Trump had “grown sour” on Sessions, largely due to his recusal decision.

It’s long been known that Trump was very upset with Sessions’s recusal. An ABC report back in March claimed that Trump “erupted with anger” over Russia-related news reports at a White House senior staff meeting the following day, and a Washington Post report the same day said Trump left for Florida “in a fury” afterward, “fuming about Sessions’s recusal and telling aides that Sessions shouldn’t have recused himself.” The next morning, Trump decided to tweet the groundless accusation that President Obama had his phones tapped, which led to a new round of controversy and blowback.

Sessions’s job appears — appears — to be safe. Still, White House press secretary Sean Spicer notably refused to affirm that Trump was still confident in Sessions at the press briefing Tuesday. Even late at night, the White House still refused to send any signal of confidence in the attorney general:

To top it off, Trump might — might — live-tweet Comey’s testimony

Finally, the Washington Post’s Robert Costa reported that not only was Trump planning to ignore the advice he’s getting from practically everyone to send less impulsive tweets — but that a presidential live-tweeting of Thursday’s Comey hearing was in fact a possibility.

It’s hard to believe Trump could be so self-destructive as to do this, especially considering the serious legal implications his tweets are already having on other issues facing his administration.

And the stakes are high enough for this hearing that Trump could well decide to issue a more considered and strategic response in the end, rather than tweeting.

But later on, Costa and Post reporters Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker wrote a report that did not paint a pretty picture of the president’s mental state right now:

Alone in the White House in recent days, President Trump — frustrated and defiant — has been spoiling for a fight, according to his confidants and associates.

Glued even more than usual to the cable news shows that blare from the televisions in his private living quarters, or from the 60-inch flat screen he had installed in his cramped study off the Oval Office, he has fumed about “fake news.” Trump has seethed as his agenda has stalled in Congress and the courts. He has chafed against the pleas for caution from his lawyers and political advisers, tweeting whatever he wants, whenever he wants.

Trump and cable television is not a particularly good combination, but it is a combination that tends to lead to spur-of-the-moment angry tweets.

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