President Donald Trump said Sunday in a tweet that he never asked former FBI Director James Comey to stop investigating his ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn, issuing a fresh denial amid a shifting timeline on when he may have known that Flynn had lied to the FBI.
Trump said on Twitter before dawn, "I never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn. Just more Fake News covering another Comey lie!" The president reiterated his version of events after Comey testified before Congress in June that Trump had asked him in a one-on-one meeting if he could see to "letting Flynn go."
The president's doubling down comes after he shifted his story Saturday on why he fired Flynn, lumping in the retired Army lieutenant general's lies to the FBI along with his untruthfulness with Vice President Mike Pence. The president's initial explanation was that Flynn had to go because he hadn't been straight with Pence about contacts with Russian officials.
Lying to the FBI is a crime, and one that Flynn acknowledged Friday in pleading guilty and agreeing to cooperate with the special counsel's Russia investigation.
Trump tweeted Saturday: "I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!"
Amid questions raised by the tweet, White House Counsel John Dowd told NBC News Saturday that Trump's tweet "simply paraphrases" Ty Cobb when he said that Flynn's false statements to the FBI "mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation."
However, when pressed Sunday, Dowd claimed responsibility for the tweet and said he, not the president, wrote it.
Dowd told NBC News that he drafted the tweet and then sent it to White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino to publish. When asked for the original email he sent to Scavino, Dowd said he dictated it orally.
"I'm out of the tweeting business," Dowd said with a chuckle. "I did not mean to break news."
Dowd's decision to claim responsibility for the tweet was first reported by The Washington Post and confirmed by NBC News on Sunday.
In another email wrinkle in the investigation into Trump's ties to Russia, The New York Times reported Saturday that emails among top Trump transition officials suggested that Flynn was in close contact with other senior members of the transition team before and after he spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. A Dec. 29 email from K.T. McFarland, a transition adviser to Trump, suggested that Russian sanctions announced by the Obama administration had been aimed at discrediting Trump's victory.
She wrote the sanctions could also make it more difficult for Trump to ease tensions with Russia, "which has just thrown the U.S.A. election to him," she wrote in the emails obtained by the Times. A White House attorney told the newspaper McFarland only meant that Democrats were portraying it that way.
It's unclear why Trump would cite lying to the FBI as a reason for firing Flynn. Doing so suggests the president knew at the time that Flynn had done something that is against the law, and therefore the investigation could not be as frivolous as he's been portraying.
It's also unclear how he would know that, if information about Russian contacts had not reached him, as he has been implying in his own defense.
Flynn was fired from the White House on Feb. 13, and he only acknowledged that he had given an incomplete account to Pence of his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. On Feb. 14, Trump asked FBI Director James Comey to end the bureau's probe in the matter, according to Comey's account, saying, "I hope you can let this go." Comey refused, and Trump fired him, too, in May.
Then-White House spokesman Sean Spicer said after Flynn's firing that it was the result of a "trust issue" and the White House counsel's office had determined there was not a legal issue.
"Whether or not he actually misled the vice president was the issue, and that was ultimately what led to the president asking for and accepting the resignation of Gen. Flynn," Spicer told reporters on Feb. 14. "That's it, pure and simple. It was a matter of trust."
Trump has been publicly dismissive of Comey and of special counsel Robert Mueller's continuing investigation, and was often generous in his appraisal of Flynn, except to say his adviser could not stay on the job after misleading his vice president.
"After years of Comey, with the phony and dishonest Clinton investigation (and more), running the FBI, its reputation is in Tatters - worst in History! But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness," Trump continued on Sunday.
At the time of Flynn's firing, Pence said Trump was justified because Flynn had lied to him. Neither Trump nor Pence indicated concern then that the FBI had not been told the true story.
Pence, who served as head of Trump's transition, has not publicly commented on Flynn's plea.
Trump turned to Twitter again later Saturday night, railing about why Flynn was prosecuted but his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton was not for her alleged misdeeds.
He tweeted: "So General Flynn lies to the FBI and his life is destroyed, while Crooked Hillary Clinton, on that now famous FBI holiday 'interrogation' with no swearing in and no recording, lies many times...and nothing happens to her? Rigged system, or just a double standard?"
He then added: "Many people in our Country are asking what the 'Justice' Department is going to do about the fact that totally Crooked Hillary, AFTER receiving a subpoena from the United States Congress, deleted and 'acid washed' 33,000 Emails? No justice!"
Clinton was voluntarily interviewed for more than three hours at FBI headquarters in July 2016. She was not in custody during her interview and so, in accordance with standard FBI and Justice Department protocol, her interview would not have been recorded. A Justice Department policy on recorded interrogations applies to individuals who have been arrested and are in custody.
It is nonetheless a crime to lie to the FBI about any material fact in an investigation. Comey has said Clinton did not lie to the FBI during her interview.