The Memo: Comey allies accuse Trump White House of smear

Former FBI Director James Comey came under attack from the White House for a third successive day on Wednesday — a tactic that drew a furious response from his defenders.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at the daily media briefing that Comey had violated the Privacy Act, a 1974 statute that stipulates how personal information can be used and disseminated by federal agencies. 

The previous day, from the same lectern, she had suggested that a criminal prosecution of Comey should be considered by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

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Ben Wittes, a friend of Comey, shot back in a phone call with The Hill.

“It is substantially, completely frivolous and it would warrant nothing more than amusement were she not doing it from the White House podium,” said Wittes, a legal journalist who is also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. 

It was “a disgusting abuse” for the White House press secretary to make such a charge, he said.

Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee investigating allegations of collusion between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign, was scathing.

Swalwell told The Hill that the criticisms of Comey were “an attempt to smear the original investigator” into the alleged collusion. 

“This is not what cooperative, innocent people do,” Swalwell said. “Cooperative innocent people work with prosecutors, not against them.”

The barrage against Comey has been ferocious. There is no sign that it will stop anytime soon.

Sanders on Monday defended President Trump’s decision to fire Comey in May. She accused the former FBI director of “giving false testimony” and “leaking privileged information to journalists.”

On Tuesday, Sanders said that a DOJ prosecution of Comey is “something that certainly should be looked at.” 

And on Wednesday, she said Trump was “100 percent right” to fire Comey, given the alleged violation of the Privacy Act, among other issues. 

Skeptics insist the repeated attacks on Comey are a political attempt to muddy the waters and undermine the credibility of the former FBI director.

The firing of Comey led ultimately to the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel. Mueller can look into allegations of collusion with Russia and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” 

Mueller’s probe has been the most persistent problem afflicting Trump. And the question of whether Trump obstructed justice in removing Comey from his post looks like the single gravest point of legal peril. 

Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, described the decision to fire Comey as perhaps the biggest mistake of modern political history in an interview with Charlie Rose of CBS’s “60 Minutes” broadcast on Sunday. 

But Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s personal lawyers, is unrepentant. 

Speaking on Wednesday afternoon, he told The Hill, “I think what Sarah said was rather unremarkable, which was that the Department of Justice should look at [a possible prosecution].” 

Referring to the White House more broadly, he stressed, “they didn’t instruct anyone” to mount a criminal prosecution.

Sekulow also highlighted another Comey-related matter that has drawn the attention of Republican politicians and the conservative media.

Late last month, Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTop Louisiana health official rips Cassidy over ObamaCare repeal bill Senate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions MORE (R-S.C.) and Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley: 'Good chance' Senate panel will consider bills to protect Mueller Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea GOP state lawmakers meet to plan possible constitutional convention MORE (R-Iowa) released partial transcripts obtained from the Office of the Special Counsel — a separate body from Mueller’s probe — that showed Comey had begun drafting a statement articulating why he would not recommend charging Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax hit by earlier hack | What to know about Kaspersky controversy | Officials review EU-US privacy pact Overnight Tech: Equifax hit by earlier undisclosed hack | Facebook takes heat over Russian ads | Alt-right Twitter rival may lose domain MORE over her use of a private email while she was secretary of State.  

The drafting process began while the investigation into the matter was ongoing — and about two months before Comey interviewed Clinton.

The GOP senators then sent a letter to current FBI director Christopher Wray, in which they complained, “Conclusion first, fact-gathering second — that’s no way to run an investigation.” 

Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel, a staunch Trump ally, called Comey a “massive hypocrite” and suggested the investigation into Clinton’s emails should be reopened. 

Speaking with The Hill, Sekulow described Comey’s behavior as “preposterous.”

The issue of Comey’s integrity is crucial because of his account of his interactions with Trump. 

In testimony that captivated the political world in June, Comey said Trump asked him to stop the FBI investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, telling him, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go.” 

On an earlier occasion, Comey said, Trump had sought a promise of “loyalty.”

Comey also acknowledged during his testimony that in May, after he was fired, he passed on a memo of the “let it go” conversation with Trump to a friend. The friend then read some its contents over the phone to a journalist, as Comey intended. 

Comey's critics say this amounts to a potentially illegal leak. The former FBI director and his allies say it does not, asserting the memo did not contain classified information and was his personal property.

Either way, details gleaned from Comey’s memo appeared in The New York Times on May 16. The next day, Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel. Trump has been under a cloud ever since.

Department of Justice veterans express shock at the White House attacks on Comey.

Harry Litman, a former deputy assistant attorney general, said that the way Comey’s memo made its way into the media did not rise to the level of any crime, even though it may appear “too cute by half, as a maneuver.”

Litman added that the White House response was “incredibly unusual.”

“This White House has been oblivious to the normal practices of having an arm’s length between the political, executive branch and the Justice Department itself,” Litman said. “It is highly unusual  — and most people would have said improper — for the White House to be suggesting anyone should get prosecuted.”

Peter Zeidenberg, who spent 17 years as a DOJ prosecutor, said the idea that Comey had violated the Privacy Act was “farcical.”

The stakes of the Russia investigation could not be any higher, with some Democrats suggesting the process could ultimately end in impeachment proceedings. 

Referring to the allegations against Comey, Zeidenberg said the White House seemed to “view this as a political fight — which in some ways it is, because impeachment is a political act. They want to, I think, gin up their base. If they can get [Trump voters] to believe that Comey is the felon who should be prosecuted here, maybe that helps them in their impeachment fight.”

Team Trump is not backing off. 

Sekulow, the personal lawyer, was adamant that Comey’s “leak of the conversation that he had with the president raises serious issues that warrant looking into.”

Comey “has created a situation for himself” through his actions, Sekulow added.

For Democrats like Swalwell, that doesn't pass muster.

“I think it is bordering on witness intimidation,” he said. “James Comey is now a witness for a number of potential different criminal charges. By going after him so publicly, it appears to be an effort to intimidate him or to chill his testimony.”

“So far,” Swalwell said, “he doesn’t look like he is intimidated.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Trump Jr. declines further Secret Service protection: report Report: Mueller warned Manafort to expect an indictment MORE’s presidency.