Former Comey aide grilled by House panel for over seven hours

Former Comey aide grilled by House panel for over seven hours
© Greg Nash

Two House panels on Thursday questioned former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyGrassley wants to subpoena Comey, Lynch after critical IG report The media just can't stop lying about Trump The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines – First lady makes surprise visit to migrant children at border MORE’s former chief of staff during a closed-door interview that lasted more than seven hours.

FBI official James Rybicki faced questions from lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee as part of a joint investigation into the way the bureau handled the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSessions says FBI agent Peter Strzok no longer has his security clearance Melania Trump puzzles with 'I really don't care' jacket Grassley wants to subpoena Comey, Lynch after critical IG report MORE’s use of a private email server.

Democrats have slammed the investigation as a sham designed to distract from the federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia, while Republicans have defended it as a legitimate oversight exercise. Oversight chairman Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyTop House Dem claims Judiciary chairman's DOJ, FBI subpoena is invalid The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — GOP lawmakers race to find an immigration fix Republicans tear into IG finding on Clinton probe MORE (R-S.C.) characterized the interview as nothing more than a standard deposition.

Lawmakers of both parties filtered in and out of interview tight-lipped on the details of the interview, although they largely indicated that Rybicki was cooperating with the questions. Without divulging particulars, Gowdy described it as turning up previously unknown information. Like a similar marathon interview with FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe in December, the briefing was confidential but not classified.

Rybicki — flanked by Greg Brower, the bureau’s chief liaison to Capitol Hill, and Scott Schools, a senior career attorney at the Justice Department — declined to comment on the interview.

Democrats were quick to describe it as a waste of time and a fishing expedition. Rep. Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiOvernight Health Care — Presented by the Association of American Medical Colleges — Governors criticize Trump move on pre-existing conditions GOP lawmaker looks to address racial disparities in maternal mortality rates To strengthen our democracy, we need to remove obstacles that keep students from voting MORE (D-Ill.) said there was “an air of tension” in the room, though that was denied by Republican lawmakers.

“I think we’re spending an inordinate amount of time on how Hillary Clinton’s emails were investigated and treated. I have seen nothing that would me to believe that the FBI did anything other than what they should have done,” said Krishnamoorthi.  

“A colossal waste of time,” quipped Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenLive coverage: High drama as hardline immigration bill fails, compromise vote delayed Hillicon Valley: House Dems release Russia-linked Facebook ads | Bill would block feds from mandating encryption 'back doors' | AT&T hired Cohen for advice on Time Warner merger | FCC hands down record robocall fine | White House launches AI panel Lawmakers move to block government from ordering digital ‘back doors’ MORE (D-Calif.).

Questioning was limited to the Clinton email investigation, according to multiple lawmakers.

Krishnamoorthi said the texts between agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page were within the scope of the interview, but said it was “unclear” whether questions could also include the controversial dossier alleging ties between Trump and Russia. He would not say whether either topic had been brought up.

Republicans were expected to press Rybicki on the drafting of Comey’s memo that cleared Clinton and her staff of wrongdoing in 2016, as well as a series of anti-Trump texts exchanged between two FBI agents before the presidential election.

“There’s obvious things that we’re going to get into — the exoneration letter and the term was changed from ‘gross negligence’ to ‘extreme carelessness,’ questions on the decision made to run the investigation out of headquarters versus the field office, and just all of the unusual things about the investigation,” Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanMeadows: Subpoenas in Russia probe 'forthcoming in days' Republicans tear into IG finding on Clinton probe Republican wants to know why Rosenstein delayed release of FBI agent texts MORE (R-Ohio) said the day before the interview.

“The decision Comey made to publicize it, the decision Comey made to actually do the press conference and the timing of certain things,” Jordan continued. “All of that will be on the table, as well as a couple specific things I want to get to.”

Jordan and other Republicans continue to raise questions about why a draft of Comey’s statement accused Clinton of being “grossly negligent” in handling classified information — a rarely used criminal threshold — while the FBI chief’s final draft of the memo ultimately rebuked Clinton for being “extremely careless.”

The statement was drafted weeks before Comey delivered the announcement of no charges.

Strzok, the No. 2 FBI official leading the Clinton email investigation, was reportedly among those who weighed in on changing the description of Clinton’s actions in Comey’s statement.

Meanwhile, Strzok has come under immense Republican scrutiny for his involvement in the Russia probe and his time working for Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE, the special counsel.

Mueller removed the agent from his team after an investigation revealed that Strzok had sent text messages to FBI lawyer Lisa Page that appeared to criticize Trump during the 2016 presidential election.

Republicans have argued that Comey prejudged the outcome of the Clinton investigation.

“Conclusion first, fact-gathering second — that’s no way to run an investigation. The FBI should be held to a higher standard than that, especially in a matter of such great public interest and controversy,” Sens. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley wants to subpoena Comey, Lynch after critical IG report Senate Dems call for Judiciary hearing on Trump's 'zero tolerance' Republicans agree — it’s only a matter of time for Scott Pruitt MORE (R-Iowa) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate panel advances three spending bills Trump says he will sign executive order to end family separations Trump backs narrow bill halting family separations: official MORE (R-S.C.) wrote in a letter to Christopher Wray, the new FBI director, in late August.

The Justice Department in the past has sought to block efforts to bring Rybicki before Congress. Last year, the heads of the Senate Judiciary Committee — Grassley and Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGrassley wants to subpoena Comey, Lynch after critical IG report Senate Gang of Four to meet next week on immigration Live coverage: High drama as hardline immigration bill fails, compromise vote delayed MORE (D-Calif.) — pushed for him to appear for a transcribed interview limited to matters outside of the scope of Mueller’s investigation. But the department refused, “consistent with the Department’s long-standing policy regarding the confidentiality and sensitivity of information relating to pending matters.”

In the fall, Senate Republicans made public portions of a redacted transcript of an interview with two FBI officials by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative agency tasked with protecting federal employees from prohibited personnel practices.

Grassley and Graham say one of the officials — who they believe to be Rybicki — told investigators that Comey decided in early May 2016 to draft a statement clearing Clinton of criminal charges, though also criticizing her handling of classified material on a private email server.

At that point the FBI had yet to interview Clinton as well as several other key witnesses, including Cheryl Mills, a senior aide to Clinton, and Bryan Pagliano, a former tech aide to Clinton.

The interview with Rybicki drew far from full attendance from either of the two committees on Thursday. Others lawmakers seen entering the hearing room Thursday morning included Judiciary Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteTrump: GOP needs Dem votes for immigration bills, complains Dems 'won't vote for anything' House GOP leaders push immigration vote to next week GOP lawmaker calls on Trump to fire Stephen Miller MORE (R-Va.) and Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Stacey PlaskettStacey PlaskettLawmakers press FEMA on restoring power to Puerto Rico Former Hill aide sentenced to prison term for sharing explicit videos of congresswoman Black Dems take lead in push to impeach Trump MORE (D-Virgin Islands), Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinKey conservative presses for shield law after seizure of NYT reporter’s records Overnight Energy: Trump praises Pruitt for doing 'great job' | Lawmakers want criminal probe of Pruitt | Heckler brings lotion bottle to Pruitt speech Oversight panel may hold hearing on DOJ reporter surveillance MORE (D-Md.) and Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeLive coverage: Justice IG testifies before House on report criticizing FBI Merkley leads Dem lawmakers to border amid migrant policy outcry This week: House GOP regroups after farm bill failure MORE (D-Texas).