Law

Comey testimony: The five most important takeaways

Hans von Spakovsky

James Comey raised quite a furor in his testimony on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee—albeit not the kind the left had anticipated.

The president’s political opponents had hoped that this hearing would finally give them what they needed to bring him down. They were sorely disappointed.  Comey, despite his obvious anger at the president for being fired and the scathing criticism he has received for his mishandling of the Clinton email scandal, completely punctured their fantasy that Hillary Clinton lost because the Russians stole the election. 

Moreover, Comey’s own admissions, despite his “feelings” to the contrary, laid to rest the claim that Trump somehow “obstructed justice” in the FBI’s ongoing investigation of Russia’s election shenanigans. 

Indeed the most damning revelation arising from Comey’s testimony concerned his own actions, not those of the president.  He admitted leaking internal FBI memos he had written about discussions with President Trump.  Leaking is not a desirable trait in the director (now former) of the chief law enforcement agency of the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Comey covered more ground than that, however. In several hours of testimony, here are the five most important things to come out of Comey Day at the U.S. Senate:

There was no obstruction of justice under the requirements of the applicable statute, 18 U.S.C. §1503.  Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) asked if the president or anyone else working for this administration had asked him “to stop the FBI investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. elections.” Comey answered “no.”  Comey claimed that while the Flynn investigation “touched” the Russia investigation, he considered them separate.  When talking with Comey on Feb. 14, the president said Michael Flynn was a good guy who he did not think had done anything wrong. He added that he “hoped” Comey could “let it go.”  That can be reasonably construed as the president thinking there is no reasonable basis to believe that there had been a violation of the law and thus no reasonable basis for the FBI to continue its investigation.  

As Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) pointed out to Comey: people don’t get prosecuted for “hoping” something will happen in the absence of force or coercion or bribery, and Comey’s “feeling” that he was being asked to end the investigation is immaterial to what actually happened.  Comey said he had a further phone call with Trump on March 30 in which the president said that if any of his ”satellite” associates were involved, that would be good to uncover.  Those are not the words of someone trying to obstruct justice by ending an investigation.  Other than speaking to Comey on that one occasion about Flynn, Trump never discussed the Russia investigation with Comey other than to urge him to tell the public that Trump was not under investigation.

The president was never under investigation in the Russia probe.  Comey told the president three different times that he was not under investigation, yet he refused to make that public.  His excuse, in response to a question from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), was weak.  He claimed that he was concerned that if that was made public and “the boomerang comes back, it’s going to be a very big deal, because there will be a duty to correct.”  So the head of the FBI thought it would be better for a cloud of suspicion to hover over the president rather than lift that cloud because perhaps, maybe, at some uncertain point in the future, that status might change?  Heaven help Americans targeted in an FBI investigation from a director with such an attitude.

There was no hacking or other interference with the voting, ballot counting, and administrative process of the election.  Although Comey said that it was the consensus view of the intelligence community that the Russians had tried mightily to influence the 2016 election, Comey said there was no evidence that any votes had been altered in the election. So Americans went to the polls and chose the president they wanted and there was no manipulation or alteration of the results.

There is no evidence of any “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.  In a comment that created quite a stir, Comey said that a New York Times story on Feb. 14 entitled “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence” was “not true.”  When asked by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) if it would “be fair to characterize that story as almost entirely wrong,” Comey said “yes.” 

The New York Times and others who reported these stories were obviously conned by their anonymous sources into painting a nefarious picture of the Trump campaign and its supposed involvement with Russian intelligence officials. Per Comey’s testimony, it was a complete fantasy.  Comey also referred to many other media stories pushing the false narrative as “dead wrong.”

Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch ordered Comey to parrot the language of the Clinton campaign regarding the FBI’s investigation into the mishandling of classified material.  Per Lynch’s instructions, Comey was to refer to his agency’s actions in the case as a “matter,” not an investigation.  Comey said the order “confused” and “concerned” him, but he did as he was told.  This directive from Lynch wasn’t unlawful, but it seems to show that Lynch was trying to help the Clinton campaign at a time when the FBI, which is a part of the Justice Department, was investigating her for possible criminal violations of the law.  If Donald Trump talking to the FBI director about his views on Michael Flynn was somehow inappropriate, Loretta Lynch trying to help the public image of the Clinton election efforts is even more so.

James Comey, despite his calling the president “a liar” and being obviously angry about his firing, in essence punctured all of the balloons President Trump’s opponents have floated to try to delegitimize his election.  This should be a lesson to the media in particular about the danger of using anonymous sources who have a political ax to grind. It gives them a powerful motive to simply make things up.  

Hans A. von Spakovsky is a Senior Legal Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and former Justice Department official. He is coauthor of “Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk”.