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WASHINGTON — Former FBI Director James Comey offered a stark assessment of President Donald Trump’s potential legal jeopardy on Sunday, saying new filings from federal prosecutors point to heightened scrutiny of the president’s own conduct.
If Trump is not yet an unindicted co-conspirator to charges already filed by the special counsel and federal prosecutors against former Trump associates, “he’s certainly close,” Comey told Nicolle Wallace, host of MSNBC’s "Deadline White House" and an NBC News political analyst, on Sunday night during a discussion at the 92nd Street Y in New York.
It was Comey's first public appearance since prosecutors in New York and on special counsel Robert Mueller’s team offered the greatest insight yet into the extent of their respective probes via new sentencing memoranda for former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
The government for the first time Friday sponsored the account that Trump directed Cohen to commit a crime in making payments to women accusing him of affairs, Comey said.
Asked what would happen typically to someone identified in such a way, Comey said, “That person would be in serious jeopardy of being charged.”
“The government wouldn’t make that sponsoring allegation if they weren’t seriously contemplating going forward with criminal charges. Now where it stands now, I can’t say,” he said.
Comey at times simply offered analysis based on his experience as a former federal prosecutor, but more significantly at others drew on his firsthand knowledge of Trump’s conduct, both as the former principal investigator in the Justice Department’s Russia probe and then as a witness.
The president's harsh attacks on Comey — he made a new one just this weekend — could be seen by a prosecutor as attempts to tamper with witnesses in an ongoing criminal matter, he said.
“I don’t know how the special counsel thinks about it. But if I were a prosecutor, and a public figure started attacking the credibility of one of my witnesses in a pending investigation, that’s something that I would look at very closely,” he said.
Comey offered new insight into the circumstances that ultimately led Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, to plead guilty to lying to federal investigators, and to Trump’s state of mind as he was briefed about Russian meddling into the election.
He expressed his disbelief at how Trump and his transition team reacted to a briefing about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. And Comey said bluntly that he took a chance early in the new administration by sending agents to interview Flynn without first negotiating with the White House counsel. In those interviews, Flynn lied about his interactions with then-Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
Days later, Trump seemed “distracted,” Comey said, adding that he took it as a personal direction during a private conversation with the president for Comey to show leniency toward Flynn — which he soon documented in a memorandum to his closest aides.
“Obviously it’s evidence of obstruction of justice” that needed to be investigated further, Comey said. “How to handle that was something we struggled with."
Ultimately they waited for Rod Rosenstein to be confirmed as deputy attorney general to brief the senior Justice Department leadership. Rosenstein appointed Mueller once Comey was fired that May.
Comey was careful in addressing the potential that Russia’s government continues to hold leverage over Trump.
“If there is significant information that would expose a lie by a major American public figure that the adversary nation knows, of course it’s a real concern,” he said.
Sunday also marked Comey’s first public comments since he testified Friday for more than six hours before two House committees on both the Clinton email investigation and the Russia probe. In that testimony he revealed that he ordered an internal investigation into leaks he believed were coming from the FBI’s New York field office about developments in the Clinton email case, based on public comments made by then-Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani who now is the president’s top attorney.
That probe could still be under way, Comey said.
“Knowing the bureau, I’m highly confident that it’s either ongoing or it reached conclusion. Because that’s not something our internal affairs people let go of,” he said.