An FBI counterintelligence probe into Russia meddling in the 2016 presidential election initially targeted "four Americans," but not Republican nominee Donald Trump nor his campaign, according to former FBI Director James Comey.
The news was revealed Saturday in a 235-page transcript published by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., after hours of closed-door testimony by Comey on Friday.
Comey said "at least some" of the people targeted were affiliated with the Trump campaign in some form, but Trump himself was not under investigation into whether the four individuals colluded with Russia to tip the election in Trump's favor.
“We opened investigations on four Americans to see if there was any connection between those four Americans and the Russian interference effort,” Comey told Gowdy. “And those four Americans did not include the candidate. At least some of them were. The FBI and the Department of Justice have not confirmed the names of those folks publicly, which is why I'm not going into the specifics.”
Comey told Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican, that the FBI suspected the four individuals may have helped Russia interfere in the election.
“[A]t the time a defensive briefing was done for candidate Trump, do you know if the FBI had any evidence that anyone associated with the Trump campaign had colluded or conspired or coordinated with Russia in any way?” Ratcliffe asked.
“I don't know the dates. ... I don't know whether it was before late July when we opened the four counterintelligence files, or not,” Comey replied. “And so, if it was after July 29th, then the answer would be, yes, we had some reason to suspect that there were Americans who might have assisted the Russians.”
Though the four individuals have not been named publically, ex-Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos was prosecuted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and was released from prison Friday after serving 12 days. Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to making false statements to FBI agents.
Other Trump associates, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, have pleaded guilty to lying about their interactions with Russians during the campaign and presidential transition period.
During questioning, Comey also defended Peter Strzok, the former FBI agent who helped lead the bureau’s investigation. He revealed that Strzok edited a letter sent to Congress days before the election disclosing that an investigation into Hillary Clinton had been reopened.
Clinton and many Democrats have blamed the letter for her election loss to Trump.
Comey said he never saw any bias from Strzok after questioning from U.S. Rep. Steven Cohen, D-Tenn. Strzok was fired after anti-Trump texts sent by him had surfaced. Trump has seized on the messages as evidence of a conspiracy to dismantle his presidency.
“So it's hard for me to see how he was on Team Clinton secretly at that point in time,” Comey said. “If you're going to have a conspiracy theory, you've got to explain all the facts. And it's hard to reconcile his not leaking that Trump associates were under investigation and his drafting of a letter to Congress on October 28th that Secretary Clinton believed hurt her chances of being elected.”
When asked if former President Barack Obama obstructed justice when he commented that Clinton's use of a private email server lacked criminal intent, Comey said he didn’t see it that way, but it did concern him.
“So, if it doesn't rise to the level of obstruction, how would you characterize the Chief Executive saying that the target of an investigation that was ongoing simply made a mistake and lacked the requisite criminal intent?” Gowdy asked.
“It concerns me whenever the Chief Executive comments on pending criminal investigations, something we see a lot today, which is why it concerned me when President Obama did it," Comey replied.
Asked if the FBI had any evidence that anyone in the Trump campaign conspired to hack the DNC server, Comey referred to Mueller’s investigation as to why he couldn’t answer.
“Did we have evidence in July of (2016) that anyone in the Trump campaign conspired to hack the DNC server?” Comey asked rhetorically. “I don't think that the FBI and special counsel want me answering questions that may relate to their investigation of Russian interference during 2016. And I worry that that would cross that line.”
He noted that anything related to Mueller’s investigation was “off-limits,” because it is an ongoing investigation.
When asked how confident was he that Mueller would conduct his investigation thoroughly, Comey replied, “There are not many things I would bet my life on. I would bet my life that Bob Mueller will do things the right way, the way we would all want, whether we're Republicans or Democrats, the way Americans should want.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.