Former FBI director James Comey was grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee over exactly what he knew regarding FBI actions in the early stages of the Russia investigation – but throughout the hearing claimed ignorance of virtually every act that was mentioned during questioning.
A Justice Department Inspector General (DOJ IG) report previously found that the warrant application and subsequent renewals applications for surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page contained inaccuracies and omissions and relied on the Steele dossier despite evidence that it was unreliable.
Comey opted not to deliver an opening statement Wednesday but welcomed questions. Committee Chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., got right to the point and asked what efforts the FBI made to verify the dossier.
"I don't know," Comey said.
Graham also asked what Comey knew about former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith, who has pleaded guilty after being accused of altering an email to say that Page was not working with the CIA despite the FBI having knowledge that Page was working with the agency.
"I know nothing of Mr. Clinesmith," Comey said.
Comey passed blame for the warrant, claiming he only signed the certification for it, not the affidavit it was based on, but when asked who the committee should look to in terms of who was accountable for misleading the court, Comey again came up empty.
First Comey said to look at the IG report, but when pressed on whether he knew, he gave a familiar response.
"I do not," he said.
Graham later discussed ex-spy Christopher Steele's sub-source, whom the FBI interviewed. The sub-source told the FBI that the information in the dossier was unreliable and was based on rumor. Graham noted that the sub-source was known by the FBI to be a possible Russian spy. Confronted with these details, Comey again pleaded ignorance.
"I don’t remember learning anything about Steele’s sources," he said. When asked if he knew that the FBI interviewed the sub-source in January 2017, Comey again said, "I don't remember."
Asked again, Comey later said he did "not remember being told of any interview." When asked if he should have been told, Comey said he could not answer.
Graham grew noticeably frustrated by Comey's responses.
"Was this an important case for the FBI or was this a run of the mill thing?" he asked at one point, commenting on the lack of information Comey appeared to have.
Graham also brought up a U.S. intelligence community report that included information that salacious details about Trump in the dossier came from Russian intelligence.
"Did you know that when it came out?" Graham asked, emphasizing that parts of Steele's dossier were believed to be Russian disinformation, yet the FBI continued to rely on it anyway.
Graham went on to cite false details in the dossier, such as a reference to a Russian consulate in Miami that does not exist, and a trip that Trump attorney Michael Cohen was said to have taken to Prague that has since been debunked.
"They never corrected all the misinformation in the dossier," Graham said. "It was used over and over again, and they never told the court about how unreliable it was. Is that a small thing or a big thing?"
"Any time there are material omissions in an application to a judge of any kind, but especially an ex parte proceeding, it's a very important issue," Comey said.
Graham also asked Comey about the newly declassified information released Tuesday by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe.
According to the declassified information, in September 2016, U.S. intelligence officials forwarded an investigative referral on Clinton purportedly approving “a plan concerning U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian hackers hampering U.S. elections” in order to distract the public from her email scandal. That referral was sent to Comey and Deputy Assistant Director of Counterintelligence Peter Strzok.
“You don’t remember getting an investigatory lead from the intelligence community? Sept. 7, 2016, U.S. intelligence officials forwarded an investigative referral to James Comey and Strzok regarding Clinton’s approval of a plan [about] Trump…as a means of distraction?” Graham asked Comey Wednesday.
“That doesn’t ring any bells with me,” Comey replied.
Ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., downplayed the FISA problems, noting that DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz found that the launching of the Russia investigation was done properly.
She recognized that the FBI made mistakes, but said President Trump and his supporters are using the Carter Page warrant “to assert that the entire Russia investigation was corrupt.” Feinstein insisted that it “played no part in the broader Russia investigation.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., acknowledged that Wednesday’s hearing was important, but claimed that the Senate has had nearly four years to enact FISA reform and that there are more pressing issues that they should be dealing with now, such as the coronavirus pandemic or even current election issues.
“There is an election coming up in a few weeks,” Klobuchar said, “and as Sen. Durbin has pointed out there are a lot of concerns right now about Russia. Not about what Mr. Comey was involved with that investigation years ago but what's happening right now.
"We have Director Wray himself ... saying, 'Russia is very active in the 2020 election, primarily through what we would call malign foreign influence in an attempt to undermine Joe Biden,'" Klobuchar said.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, brought up past discussions he and Comey had about FISA back when Comey was first going through his confirmation process for the FBI director position.
“I trusted you. I believed that you would act in good faith,” Lee said. “When I asked you in my office and later in committee hearings--first in your confirmation hearing and then in our subsequent oversight hearings--what you would do to help make sure that the FISA process was respected and not manipulated, you gave me your word. And having established that brief relationship with you all those years earlier, I trusted you.
Lee said that now, he is “very disappointed” to find that Comey’s past promises now “seem very insincere.”
Lee then commented on Comey’s repeated claims that he was not aware of problematic actions or pertinent information when the probe was going on.
“With all due respect you don’t seem to know anything about an investigation that you ran,” he said.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., however, was less frustrated with Comey’s testimony than some of his colleagues, claiming that Comey’s efforts to avoid accountability may be more telling than he intended.
“What you see here is that he is at pains to a avoid any accountability and to admit to what he knew,” Hawley said outside the hearing, “and unfortunately he's tying himself in knots.” Hawley referred to moments from the hearing when Comey denied knowledge of information such as the political affiliation of Steele’s research.
“It's all in the record I read it back to him, so that I think is vitally important,” Hawley said, hoping that there will be “prosecutorial efforts” taken.
Graham intends to call additional witnesses to further explore the FISA process in the Russia investigation.
"We'll keep moving forward," he said. "I'm going to call everybody who signed the warrant application and ask them if you knew then what you know now, would you have signed the warrant application against Carter Page. And oh, by the way, how is it possible that the people in charge seem to know nothing about egregious abuses in one of the most important cases in the history of the FBI?"
The committee has already called former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe to testify at a hearing scheduled for October 6.
Fox News’ Kelly Phares and Brooke Singman contributed to this report.