As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, I was among those who interviewed fired FBI Director James Comey on Friday about Hillary’s Clinton’s email scandal and about the initial stages of the FBI investigation of allegations that the Trump presidential campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election.
Comey said after the closed-door interview that it was pretty boring. I agree with him on that. It was boring because FBI and Justice Department lawyers told him not to answer questions dealing with the Russia probe and he responded to dozens of other questions saying “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.”
A transcript of the interview was released Saturday.
Democrats in the interview didn’t get their smoking gun about the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia – something they are desperately seeking in order to explain Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump two years ago in an election most people expected the former first lady, senator and secretary of state to win.
But Republicans didn’t get Comey to directly corroborate corruption in Clinton’s effort to hide her emails from public scrutiny by using her own private email address and server rather than her State Department email account to conduct government business.
Nevertheless, there are several important takeaways from the session with Comey.
One is that when he was FBI director, Comey believed he was prescient and had incredibly broad power.
Another is that Comey can’t recall very much of the specific facts of high-profile investigations into a former secretary of state and a seemingly unprecedented investigation into workers of a presidential campaign.
And yet another was Comey’s surprising claim that even though he was the FBI director, he was unaware of much of what was going on in his own agency.
One of the few mistakes Comey made Friday – as he ducked and dodged our questions most artfully and articulately – was that he claimed he somehow figured out that when then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., was nominated to be attorney general, Sessions was “on the cusp of recusing” himself from supervising the Russia investigation. At that point, Sessions had not announced he was even considering recusal.
Comey has claimed that President Trump suggested that the FBI director go easy on Michael Flynn, the retired Army lieutenant general who served for 24 days as the president’s national security adviser. Comey was so distraught about President Trump’s alleged suggestion that the FBI director informed his senior aides and wrote a memo purporting to detail the conversation with the president.
But when we pressed Comey as to why he did not refer his conversation with President Trump to Sessions, Comey asserted some kind of special knowledge about Session’s then-future recusal.
That mystical ability to forecast that Sessions was “on the cusp” of doing something indicates that Comey believed he may have known more about Sessions than Sessions knew about himself.
In addition, Comey’s seeming belief that he could predict the future in this instance was not unlike his rationale for making the ultimate decision to take over the prosecutorial decision from then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the Clinton mishandling of classified documents on her private email.
Comey’s foresight in these instances is particularly curious when juxtaposed against the many things he didn’t know were happening in his own agency while he was FBI director.
For instance, he did not know that Justice Department official Bruce Ohr was effectively the handler of former British spy Christopher Steele, the infamous author of what became known as the Steele dossier.
The dossier is a collection of memos making unproven allegations of misconduct and collusion involving the Trump presidential campaign and Russia. Hillary Clinton’s campaign helped fund compilation of the document.
Comey apparently was unaware that Ohr was receiving what Comey would later describe as “unverified and salacious” information from Steele and then passing it on to agents in the FBI, one of whom was Peter Strzok.
This is particularly problematic because other witnesses have testified suggesting that it would have been unlikely that Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants to spy on Americans would be granted without the information that was passed from Steele to Ohr to the FBI.
And yet, even though he was receiving weekly briefings, Comey wasn’t aware of this tawdry chain of “evidence?” It seems unlikely that Comey was that inattentive or incompetent.
One thing demonstrated by Comey’s verbal hairsplitting in his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee was that he pays attention to detail. So if Comey didn’t know these things surrounding the Steele dossier, Bruce Ohr and the use of the dossier to obtain a FISA warrant, were the weekly briefings deficient?
A more troubling question is whether subordinates, such as Peter Strzok, were running a rogue operation under the director’s nose for political purposes.
On Friday we saw that the Justice Department continues to run interference for witnesses who come before the House Judiciary Committee, with lawyers telling Comey to not answer many of our questions for him. This obstruction impedes the oversight authority of our committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which also participated in the interview of Comey.
Puzzling as well is that Comey can remember enough to write a book and tour the nation to sell his book, but can’t remember many of the events he was asked about in the hearing.
While the pace of the hearing might have drawn a yawn from Comey, it nonetheless left us with conclusions to be drawn, not all of which are favorable to Comey or the 10 people who were terminated, demoted, or voluntarily left under a cloud of misconduct from the highest levels of the Justice Department and the FBI.
Comey is scheduled to come back for further questioning. There is so much more that he can tell us – if only he will answer our questions.