U.S. President Donald Trump tried to quash an FBI investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's ties with Russia during a meeting with FBI director James Comey shortly after taking office, media reported on May 16.
Comey, who was fired by Trump last week, met with Trump in the Oval Office for dinner a day after Flynn was fired in February and afterwards wrote a memo about Trump's request to drop the investigation, according to The New York Times, Reuters, AP, and other news organizations. The reports cited sources who said they had seen the memo or were reading parts of it to the news outlets.
The White House immediately denied that Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation -- a move that some U.S. lawmakers and legal experts said may have been obstruction of justice, a criminal offense.
The news came after a week of turmoil at the White House that began with Comey's firing on May 9 and continued with a meeting the following day with Russian envoys at which reports said Trump divulged classified secrets provided by a U.S. ally -- charges also denied by the White House.
According to the news reports, the Comey memo recounts how Trump asked him to drop the FBI's investigation of Flynn shortly after Flynn was fired for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Russia's ambassador to the United States.
"I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go," Trump told Comey, according to The New York Times, which was the first media outlet to report the existence of the memo and said one of Comey's associates read parts of it to a reporter. "He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."
It later emerged that Flynn was suspected by the Justice Department as having become vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
The Times reported that Comey wrote his memo to create a "paper trail" documenting allegedly "improper" pressure by Trump over the FBI's investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the election and possible Kremlin collusion with former Trump aides.
AP reported that Comey documented conversations he had with Trump in several memos because he found the encounters "odd" or "troubling."
AP said Comey is willing to testify about his experiences with Trump, but wants to do so in public, not in a private briefing as some congressional committees have suggested.
Both AP and the Times reported that during his Oval Office dinner with Comey, Trump asked Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to leave the room before discussing the Flynn investigation with the FBI director.
The Times said that during the Oval Office meeting with Comey, Trump condemned a series of government leaks to the news media and said the FBI director should consider prosecuting reporters for publishing classified information.
The White House said the news reports about Comey's memo are "not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey... The president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation."
Democrats in Congress expressed alarm at the reports.
"This is one of the most serious allegations you can make against a leader -- that they're in some way trying to delay or obstruct the administration of justice," said Senator Dick Durbin, the second most senior Democrat in the Senate.
"It's stunning, breathtaking to think that a president of the United States would have considered reaching out to the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and ask him to stop an investigation on anyone."
"History is watching," said Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer of New York. "The country is being tested in unprecedented ways."
"If true, it is the most explosive evidence to date that the President attempted to obstruct the investigation into his associates’ connections to Russia," said Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"It is time for Republican leadership in Congress to publicly acknowledge how dangerous the President’s actions and rhetoric are to American rule of law" and agree to appoint a special counsel to investigate the Russian matter, he said.
Republicans also expressed concern and demanded to see the Comey memo on which the news reports were based.
Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of a House of Representatives oversight committee that is investigating the Russian matter, said the memo raises concerns "about improper interference placed on an active investigation."
Chaffetz said his committee wants to see the memo and he is prepared to force the Justice Department to turn the memo over using a congressional subpoena, if necessary.
"I have my subpoena pen ready," Chaffetz wrote on Twitter.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, said the latest revelations emerging from the White House are "at a point where it's of Watergate size and scale."
"We've seen this movie before," he said, referring to the scandal that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation after an impeachment process had been launched against him.
"The shoes continue to drop, and every couple days there's a new aspect," McCain said. Trump needs to "get it all out...and the longer you delay, the longer it's going to last."
McCain also called it "unacceptable" for Trump to invite Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov into the Oval Office last week, calling him a "stooge" for the Kremlin.