Fired FBI chief James Comey has confirmed that Donald Trump urged him to drop a probe into former national security advisor Michael Flynn, in a preview of hotly awaited testimony Thursday that could rock the foundations of the presidency.
Comey's bombshell claim Wednesday fueled fresh allegations that Trump illegally tried to obstruct an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In a written statement ahead of his testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey detailed how Trump repeatedly raised the Russia case with him earlier this year, asking him to go easy on Flynn, who is accused of improper links to Moscow.
Trump complained the investigation was a "cloud" over his administration that needed to be lifted, Comey said.
And at a private White House dinner on January 27, just days after the Republican billionaire took office, Comey said Trump appeared to want to "create some sort of patronage relationship" with him.
"The president said, 'I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.' I didn't move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed," Comey said.
Comey did not say whether he thought the president's actions amounted to obstruction, a serious crime that could lead to impeachment.
But he called Trump's approaches "very concerning, given the FBI's role as an independent investigative agency."
He also described trying to insulate himself and the Federal Bureau of Investigation from political pressure in the weeks before Trump fired him on May 9, as the president complained about the Russian probe and labeled it "fake news."
- US capital riveted -
Comey's seven-page statement added volatile fuel to Washington's political tensions ahead of Thursday's testimony. Democrats said they would press the issue of obstruction while Republicans hedged their comments.
Cable news stations set countdown clocks to the 10 am (1400 GMT) hearing, and a number of bars in Washington will open early and tune their TVs to live broadcasts of the hearing.
A pub near the Capitol offered free drinks every time Trump tweets about Comey.
Analysts said Comey, an intensely by-the-book, non-political law enforcer whose handling of a separate investigation into Democrat Hillary Clinton last year nevertheless may have cost her the presidential election, was studiously avoiding accusing the president of a crime.
But Comey was not the only one to suggest pressure from Trump. The Washington Post reported that the president also approached Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency chief Mike Rogers about the Flynn probe.
Both Coats and Rogers, testifying Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, said they never felt "pressure" to intervene in the investigation.
But neither denied the Post stories and nervously dodged loaded questions from senators about whether Trump had asked them to intervene.
- Trump 'vindicated' by Comey -
Despite the allegations, Trump's personal lawyer said Wednesday that the president was "pleased" with Comey's statement that he himself was not under investigation.
"The president feels completely and totally vindicated. He is eager to continue to move forward with his agenda," said Marc Kasowitz, recently hired by Trump to deal with issues linked to the Russia investigation.
Republicans though were uneasy about Comey's statement and other emerging allegations.
Asked if Trump had acted appropriately, Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr said: "I don't think that from what I've read there's anything of wrongdoing, but I will match that with his (Comey's) verbal testimony, and weigh it against the evidence of our investigation to date."
Democrats compared the testimony to the Watergate scandal, when president Richard Nixon, facing impeachment for obstruction of justice, was forced to resign in 1973.
"Comey confirms that Trump asked him to end that investigation into Flynn," Senator Ron Wyden told CNN Wednesday.
"That by itself is almost a Watergate-level effort to interfere with an ongoing investigation."
"The question really is not whether the president has obstructed justice," said Congressman Al Green. "The question really is whether the president can obstruct justice with impunity."