With a threat of 'tapes,' Trump tells ousted FBI chief not to talk to media

WASHINGTON, May 12 (Reuters) - Donald Trump warned ousted FBI Director James Comey on Friday not to talk to the media, a highly unusual move that prompted fresh charges the president is trying to silence the man who led an investigation into possible collusion between Trump's election campaign and Russia.

On Twitter, Trump appeared to suggest that if Comey gave his version of contacts between them, the administration might produce tapes of conversations, although it was not clear if such tapes exist. The veiled threat added to the storm over Trump's abrupt firing of Comey on Tuesday.

Critics have assailed Trump for dismissing the FBI chief just as the agency is investigating alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, and possible Moscow ties to the Trump presidential campaign.

The New York Times reported the president asked Comey in January to pledge loyalty to him and that Comey refused to do so. Such a request would undermine the standing of the FBI chief as an independent law enforcer and further fueled charges that Trump has overstepped the norms of his office.

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Reaction to Trump's firing of James Comey
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Reaction to Trump's firing of James Comey
But does anyone seriously believe @realDonaldTrump fired the top person investigating his ties to Russia because he was unfair to Hillary?
Trump firing Comey shows how frightened the Admin is over Russia investigation
Gov. John Kasich statement on James Comey https://t.co/Wrwj6sGqnz
Removal of Director Comey only confirms need for select cmte to investigate #Russia's interference in 2016 election https://t.co/LfKlwSw6iQ
EVERYONE who cares about independence & rule of law in America should be "troubled by the timing and reasoning" of… https://t.co/NZY4qh3uiz
This is Nixonian. Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein must immediately appoint a special prosecutor to continue the Trump/Russia investigation.
Firing of Comey tainted by extraordinary conflict of interest. Independent prosecutor must be appointed to restore… https://t.co/lXBIJtTf18
First Pres Trump fired Sally Yates, then Preet Bharara. Now #Comey. Doesn't seem like an accident. We must have a special prosecutor.
If we don't get a special prosecutor, every American will rightfully suspect that the decision to fire #Comey was part of a cover-up.
We are in a full-fledged constitutional crisis.
Comey's fired, which means Trump must be one of the few people in DC that the FBI doesn't have something on.
My statement on James Comey https://t.co/NWBR8FGTCf
Elijah Cummings is calling for "immediate emergency hearings". https://t.co/iMsNmdPmHi
LEAHY: "This is nothing less than Nixonian." https://t.co/n4R4fWSgib
Sen. John McCain on Comey firing: "I regret that that took place. The president does have that authority, so I resp… https://t.co/pSEu3XXsj5
Statement on FBI Director Comey ➡ https://t.co/vB822Nw5OR
This should not be sugar coated. Firing Comey is up there in terms of the scariest things Trump has done.
I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination.
My staff and I are reviewing legislation to establish an independent commission on Russia. The second paragraph of… https://t.co/qcm1PiFkNG
Ds were against Comey before they were for him.
U.S. Senator Susan Collins’ Statement on Director Comey #mepolitics https://t.co/LHCcbPJMsb https://t.co/xNUeGvENlv
Firing Comey has the foul stench of an attempt to stop an ongoing investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
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"James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!" Trump said in a string of Twitter posts on Friday.

Trump told Fox News he did not ask Comey to pledge loyalty and only wants him to be honest. Trump said he would not talk about the existence of any tapes.

CNN said Comey is "not worried about any tapes" Trump may have, citing an unnamed source familiar with the matter.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation probe and parallel congressional investigations have clouded Trump's presidency since he took office on Jan. 20, threatening to overwhelm his policy priorities.

Democrats accuse the Republican president of trying to dent the FBI probe by firing Comey and have called for a special counsel to investigate the Russia issue.

INDEPENDENT PROBE?

The No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, Richard Durbin, went further on Friday and said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein should appoint an independent special prosecutor to pursue possible criminal charges related to Comey's firing, although he did not specify if he meant such charges should be against Trump.

But Rosenstein does not see the need at this time for a special prosecutor, CNN reported. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Reuters.

Trump told Fox News in an interview he did not think an independent probe was necessary.

In a statement, Durbin said that what he characterized as Trump's admission that he fired Comey because of the Russia probe was "dangerously close to obstruction of justice."

Durbin said Trump's tweet on Friday "could be construed as threatening a witness in this investigation, which is another violation of federal law."

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Reactions to reports of possible Trump collusion with Russia
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Reactions to reports of possible Trump collusion with Russia
The FBI is investigating collusion between @realDonaldTrump's campaign & Russia. When will the GOP end the charade & put country first?
If CNN's New Russia Report Is True, We May Be Seeing the Beginning of the End of Donald Trump's Presidency - GQ https://t.co/SjR6bg3ZW0
My column today on Trump & the Russia ties: ‘There’s a Smell of Treason in the Air’ https://t.co/bkteWj6siQ https://t.co/wzQeO6GxJW
If the Left wants to talk about Collusion and Rigged Elections, let's start with Hillary Clinton https://t.co/DhUouxSmzh
#Trumpcare, Russian collusion, & a stolen SCOTUS seat: what more do Dems need before they bring govt to screeching halt?
.@20committee said on radio that IC has "devastating information" that there was "active collusion" between Trump inner circle & Russia.
.@DevinNunes is trying to cover-up Trump's involvement in undermining our democracy and his possible collusion with the Russians.
Isn't it amazing that Clinton was getting cheat questions, Media was in collusion with her & Obama's NSA was tapping #Trump & HE STILL WON!
We should hire @wikileaks to investigate Trump/Russia. Our government can't investigate themselves out of a toilet bowl. #Outnumbered
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Comey declined an invitation to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed meeting on Tuesday for scheduling reasons, said a spokesman for Senator Mark Warner, the panel's top Democrat. An official familiar with the matter told Reuters that Comey had agreed in principle to testify behind closed doors at some point.

As has happened on previous occasions since Trump took office, different versions rapidly circulated of an event - in this case phone conversations between Comey and Trump and a dinner they had at the White House.

The New York Times said Comey told associates he declined to make a pledge of loyalty to Trump when the president requested it while they dined just seven days after his inauguration. Comey instead told Trump he could count on his honesty, the Times said.

Trump says Comey had told him three times he was not under investigation in the Russia probe. He said in an interview on Thursday with NBC News that Comey gave him this assurance during the White House dinner and in two phone conversations. Trump said Comey wanted to have the dinner because he wanted to stay on in the job.

Comey has not publicly discussed any conversations he has had with Trump.

NEWS BRIEFINGS

Trump also hit back on Friday at media reports questioning the credibility of White House accounts of why Comey was fired, which have changed over the course of the week, and threatened an end to regular White House press briefings.

"As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!" Trump said. "Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future 'press briefings' and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???"

Trump told Fox News he would decide in "the next couple of weeks" whether the briefings would continue.

The White House initially said Trump fired Comey on the recommendation of the top Justice Department officials: Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein. In the NBC interview on Thursday, Trump said he would have fired Comey regardless of any such recommendations.

The White House has said Comey's firing was unrelated to the Russia probe. On Thursday, Trump told NBC he knew he ran the risk that by firing Comey he would "confuse people" and "lengthen out the investigation" into ties to Russia.

The president said he never pressured Comey into dropping the FBI investigation, and added that there was no "collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians."

Trump told Fox News he was surprised by the fierce reaction of Democrats. "I thought that this would be a very popular thing, that I did, when I terminated Comey, because all of the Democrats couldn't stand him," Trump said.

Comey had angered Democrats over his handling of the probe of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in January that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign of interference in the election aimed at tilting the vote in Trump's favor. Moscow has denied any such meddling.

Seeking to bolster Trump's case that he has had no concealed dealings with Russia, his lawyers said in a letter released by the White House on Friday that a review of Trump's tax returns from the past 10 years showed no income from Russian sources outside of a few exceptions, and indicated he did not owe money to Russian lenders.

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Key players in Trump-Russia connection allegations
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Key players in Trump-Russia connection allegations

Paul Manafort

Paul Manafort signed on as Donald Trump's campaign manager in March 2016. A longtime Republican strategist and beltway operative, Manafort had previously served as an adviser to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich -- a pro-Russia leader who was violently ousted in 2014. Manafort resigned from his campaign position in August 2016 amid questions over his lobbying history in Ukraine for an administration supportive of Russia. The former campaign manager reportedly remained in Trump's circle during the post-election transition period.

Michael Flynn

Gen. Michael Flynn was named President Trump's national security adviser in November of 2016. Flynn reportedly met and spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December, at one point discussing sanctions. Flynn originally told Vice President Pence he did not discuss sanctions -- a point the Department of Justice said made the national security adviser subject to blackmail. Flynn resigned from his position in February.

Sergey Kislyak

Outgoing Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak is the Russian official U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions -- communication Sessions denied during his Senate committee hearing testimony.

Roger Stone

Stone is a longtime Republican political consultant who served as a campaign adviser to Trump who continued to talk with the then-GOP candidate after stepping away from his adviser role. Stone claimed last year that he had knowledge of the planned WikiLeaks release of emails pertaining to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. Stone recently admitted to speaking via direct message with "Guccifer 2.0" -- an online entity U.S. officials believe is tied to Russia. Stone says the correspondence was “completely innocuous.”

Jeff Sessions

Former U.S. senator Jeff Sessions from Alabama joined Trump's campaign as a foreign policy adviser in February 2016. Sessions was nominated to be U.S. attorney general by President Trump and was then confirmed by the Senate. Reports then emerged that Sessions had spoken twice with Sergey Kislyak while he was senator -- a fact that he left out of his Senate hearing testimony. Instead, he said in writing that he had not communicated with any Russian officials during the campaign season. Sessions defended himself saying he had spoken with Kislyak specifically in a senate capacity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

The American intelligence community accused Putin in Jan. 2017 of ordering a campaign to undermine trust in the American electoral process, developing a clear preference for Trump as president. "We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump," the report read.

James Comey

Comey publicly confirmed in March an FBI inquiry into Russia's involvement in the 2016 election. “The F.B.I., as part of our counterintelligence effort, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 president election,” Comey stated.

Carter Page

Page worked for Merrill Lynch as an investment banker out of their Moscow office for three years before joining Trump's campaign as a foreign policy adviser. During his time with Merrill Lynch, Page advised transactions for two major Russian entities. Page has called Washington "hypocritical" for focusing on corruption and democratization in addressing U.S. relations with Russia. While Page is someone Trump camp has seemingly tried to distance itself from, Page recently said he has made frequent visits to Trump Tower.

J.D. Gordon

Before Gordon joined the Trump campaign as a national security adviser in March 2016, he served as a Pentagon spokesman from 2005 through 2009. Like others involved in Trump-Russia allegations, Gordon met with ambassador Kislyak in July at the Republican National Convention, but has since denied any wrongdoing in their conversation. He advocated for and worked to revise the RNC language on and position toward Ukraine relations, so it was more friendly toward Russia's dealings in the country.

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(Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann, Mark Hosenball, Eric Walsh and Susan Cornwell; Writing by Frances Kerry and Eric Beech; Editing by Alistair Bell and Bill Trott)

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