Donald Trump is facing the gravest crisis of his presidency following the claim that he urged James Comey, the recently ousted FBI head, to halt an investigation into Michael Flynn, the retired general who was briefly his first national security adviser.
According to a memo made by Mr Comey after a private meeting in February, Mr Trump asked him to stop investigating Mr Flynn, who had been fired the previous day for lying about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador. Mr Comey’s documentation of the Oval Office meeting has sparked uproar in Washington and prompted some Republicans to call for independent investigations into the actions of the president.
John McCain, the Arizona Republican senator, said the scandals engulfing Mr Trump were nearing “Watergate size and scale”, in a reference to the issue that toppled Richard Nixon. “It is a centipede and the shoe continues to drop,” said Mr McCain.
The White House was dealing from the political fallout from Mr Trump’s decision last week to fire Mr Comey when it emerged on Tuesday that the former prosecutor had kept notes of their February meeting. The revelation is just the latest in a raft of Russia-related controversies casting a dark shadow over Mr Trump and jeopardising his ability to pass legislation.
Susan Collins, a Maine Republican senator, said the Russia-related scandals, including the ouster of Mr Comey, were “deeply troubling”. She told CNN that the Senate intelligence committee — one of several Congressional bodies investigating Russian influence in the 2016 election — needed to hear directly from Mr Comey and obtain access to his accounts of his White House meetings.
The White House denied Mr Comey’s account in a statement on Tuesday. “The president has never asked Mr Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn,” it said. “This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr Comey.”
In a worrying sign for the president, Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the House who has been reluctant to criticise Mr Trump, backed a push by the House oversight and government reform committee to demand that the FBI hand over any “memoranda, notes, summaries and recordings” regarding communications between Mr Trump and Mr Comey.
Jason Chaffetz, the Republican congressman who chairs the committee, said he wanted to see the memo. “I need to see it sooner rather than later. I have my subpoena pen ready,” he tweeted on Tuesday. AshLee Strong, spokesperson for Mr Ryan, said lawmakers “need to have all the facts, and it is appropriate for the House oversight committee to request this memo”.
Adam Kinzinger, a Republican congressman from Illinois, said the existence of the Comey memo meant Congress should now push for a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of the Russia-related controversies. “It is time that we do whatever is necessary . . . this has raised real red flags,” Mr Kinzinger told CNN.
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John Kasich, the Republican Ohio governor who fought Mr Trump for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, also called on Congress to become more assertive. “This is not a time for Republicans to hide,” said Mr Kasich, who could challenge Mr Trump in the 2020 election.
The revelation about the Comey memo came the day after Mr Trump was engulfed by another controversy following the claim that he revealed highly classified information about a potential Isis plot to Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, in a meeting in the Oval Office last week.
On Wednesday, Russian president Vladimir Putin waded into that controversy by offering to provide the US Congress with a transcript of the conversation between Mr Trump and the Russian foreign minister. Senior Republicans, including Mr McCain, had criticised the president for allowing Mr Lavrov and Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador at the centre of the Flynn investigation, into the Oval Office. The White House did not respond to an inquiry about whether the Russian delegation had been permitted to record the Oval Office conversation.
Democrats have pounced on the existence of Mr Comey’s memo as further evidence that Mr Trump has attempted to obstruct justice, an accusation they also made about his abrupt dismissal of Mr Comey. “The country is being tested in unprecedented ways. History is watching,” said Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate.
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, which is also investigating Russian influence, said Mr Comey should testify as soon as possible.
The Comey memo is the latest episode in a multi-faceted scandal about the role of Russia in the 2016 election that has engulfed Mr Trump and his top officials. Mr Trump fired Mr Flynn in February, after 24 days on the job, following a Washington Post report that the retired general had misled Mike Pence, vice-president, about conversations with Mr Kislyak.
Mr Trump has frequently dismissed the FBI investigation as a “witch hunt” orchestrated by frustrated Democrats. Ms Collins, the Maine Republican, on Wednesday said she had spent three days at CIA headquarters looking at evidence pertaining to the Russian investigation, and said she disagreed with the public statements made by the president on the issue.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi