5 Key Questions Raised by the Redacted Comey Memos

The details of events from President Trump's first weeks in office are increasingly murky

James Comey in New York City early this week. Credit: Greg Allen/Invision/AP/REX Shutterstock

The Justice Department on Thursday released James Comey’s contemporaneous memos of the meetings and phone calls he had with President Donald Trump in the days and weeks after Trump's stunning election victory. The document dump was not a viral marketing stunt for Comey’s new book, A Higher Loyalty – the DOJ provided the memos in response to a request last week from the Republican chairmen of the House Judiciary, Intelligence and Oversight committees. In a joint statement Thursday, those lawmakers, Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Devin Nunes (R-CA), said the memos "are significant for both what is in them and what is not."

After reviewing the materials, we are left with several questions:

1. What is the full story with Michael Flynn and FISA surveillance?

Comey writes that during an afternoon "meet and greet" with Reince Priebus, who at the time was White House chief of staff, Priebus asked the FBI director, privately, whether or not National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was the subject of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act order – the kind of warrant issued to surveil someone suspected of working as a foreign agent. Comey’s answer is redacted, but he goes on to describe to Priebus the appropriate channels for such a question, telling him if Flynn were under surveillance, "I would normally make sure the [Attorney General] and [Deputy Attorney General] were aware and they would likely inform the [White House] Counsel and he could decide whether to inform the [Chief of Staff]."

It’s worth noting that Priebus and Comey’s conversation took place on February 8, 2017 – two weeks after Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates requested a meeting with White House Counsel Don McGahn to inform him that Flynn had lied to Vice President Pence about his conversation with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The Justice Department knew Flynn lied about the conversation, because they had a recording of it. In other words, Yates appears to have followed the exact process that Comey described would be followed if Flynn was under surveillance ... because he was. What’s unclear is whether Kislyak, Flynn, or both were the subject of the surveillance.

2. Trump was furious over missing one world leader's congratulatory phone call. Which leader?

On January 28, 2017 – one week after he was sworn in – President Trump invited the then-FBI Director to a private dinner at the White House. Comey was expecting other guests and was surprised to find it was just him and the president. At one point during their "chaotic" conversation, Comey writes that Trump expressed "serious reservations about Mike Flynn’s judgement."

The president, Comey recalled, "illustrated with a story from that day in which the President apparently discovered during his toast to Theresa May [REDACTED] had called four days ago. Apparently, as the president was toasting PM May, he was explaining that she had been the first to call him after his inauguration and Flynn interrupted to say that [REDACTED] had called (first, apparently). It was then that the President learned of [REDACTED'S] call and he confronted Flynn about it (not clear whether that was in the moment or after lunch with PM May), Flynn said the return call was scheduled for Saturday, which prompted a heated reply from the President that six days was not an appropriate period of time to return a call from the [REDACTED] of a country like [REDACTED]. ("This isn't [REDACTED] we're talking about.") He said that if he called [REDACTED] and didn't get a return call for six days he would be very upset."

The obvious candidate is Russian President Vladimir Putin. And, in fact, sources with knowledge of the matter confirmed to the Wall Street Journal that Putin was the subject of the heated exchange. (The Journal did not report on which country the president compared unfavorably to Russia.)

3. Did Vladimir Putin actually tell Trump that Russia has the best prostitutes?

In the same February 8 memo, Comey documents a brief interaction he had with the president following his conversation with Priebus. During the conversation, Comey writes, "The President said 'the hookers thing' is nonsense but that Putin had told him, 'we have some of the most beautiful hookers in the world.' He did not say when Putin had told him this and I don’t recall [REDACTED]."

The Washington Post has speculated as to when that conversation might have happened – suggesting a variety of possibilities, including a conversation between the two leaders that took place two weeks earlier, on January 28. Another possibility: Trump was referring to a comment Putin made in a January 17 interview with Bloomberg. Putin cast doubt on the dossier’s claims, saying Trump is "a grown man, and secondly he's someone who has been involved with beauty contests for many years and has met the most beautiful women in the world, I find it hard to believe that he rushed to some hotel to meet girls of loose morals, although ours are undoubtedly the best in the world."

4. Did Reince Priebus know Trump invited Comey to dinner?

During their one-on-one dinner, Trump reportedly told Comey that his chief of staff was not aware they were meeting, before taking it back. The first time he said this was in the context of asking Comey who his primary point of contact in the White House should be. Comey writes, "I explained that in the prior administration, my WH contacts were the [chief of staff], or the people in Mike Flynn's job or Tom Bossert's job. He said 'Reince doesn't know we are having dinner,' but he will tell him and that I should deal with Reince."

After dinner, though, as they were parting ways, Comey notes that Trump changed his story: "As we stepped from the Green Room, he said 'Reince knows we are having dinner' (the opposite of what he said earlier) 'deal with him; I will tell him.'" The point here being that if Priebus knew, others likely knew as well – all of which is something Robert Mueller will want to know.

5. Who is telling the truth about the infamous night inside the Moscow hotel room?

According to the notes Comey scribbled down in the car after meeting with the then-president elect, Trump appeared to be racking his memory after Comey informed him of allegations the Russian government possessed incriminating footage of him.

"I said the Russians allegedly had tapes involving him and prostitutes at the Presidential Suite at the Ritz Carlton in Moscow from about 2013. He interjected, 'there were no prostitutes; there were never prostitutes.' He then said something about him being the kind of guy who didn't need to ‘go there’ and laughed (which I understood to be communicating that he didn't need to pay for sex). He said '2013' to himself, as if trying to remember that period of time, but didn't add anything," Comey recalled.

Incidentally, Comey's notes from this meeting appear to contradict his assertion that he has never seen President Trump laugh.