THE MEMO: Comey commands the stage

THE MEMO: Comey commands the stage
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High drama came to Capitol Hill Wednesday as FBI Director James Comey made his most impassioned defense yet of his conduct during last year’s presidential race.

The debate over his actions has lost none of its intensity in the six months since the election. But the FBI director dealt confidently with tough questioning from senators from both parties. 

If Comey did not persuade any critics into his camp, he committed no missteps to deepen his problems. And he gave a fuller explanation than ever before of the bind in which he believed he had been placed during last year’s election season.

Comey acknowledged that the realization the bureau could have affected the election’s outcome left him feeling “mildly nauseous.” 

But, he added, “Honestly, it wouldn’t change the decision.”

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Comey has been transformed into an unusual kind of political celebrity over the past year, his decisions coming in for sharp criticism from almost every point of the political spectrum. 

News reports have cited anonymous sources within the intelligence community casting him as too fond of the spotlight, despite his repeated insistence to the contrary.

Whether he sought it or not, Wednesday's Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing was yet another center-stage moment for the FBI director. Cable networks carried virtually uninterrupted coverage of his testimony from the moment he took his seat before a scrum of news photographers. 

The hearing had moments of real tension, especially in an exchange between Comey and the panel’s most senior Democrat, Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFive takeaways from Barr's new powers in 'spying' probe Senate Democrats to House: Tamp down the impeachment talk Feinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report MORE of California.  

Comey, who had sat impassively during opening remarks in which Feinstein criticized his behavior during the election season as “extraordinary,” responded with vigor when it came his turn to speak.

The central issue was his decision, less than two weeks before November’s election, to inform Congress that FBI agents had found new emails that they believed could be pertinent to the bureau’s earlier investigation into Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton slams Trump for spreading 'sexist trash' about Pelosi Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign DNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery MORE.  

That investigation sought to determine whether Clinton had handled classified information improperly in using a private email address and server while she was secretary of State.

Comey insisted that he was confronted with two unpalatable choices once he learned of the new emails, which had been discovered as part of a separate investigation into disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.). Weiner is the now-estranged husband of longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin.

“I could not see a door labeled ‘no action’ ” he said. Instead, Comey asserted, he only had the option of speaking about the discovery — a choice he characterized as “really bad” — or not speaking about it, a course that he viewed as tantamount to concealment.

“ ‘Speak’ would be really bad. There’s an election in 11 days. Lordy, that would be really bad," Comey said with an anguished look. But, he added, “concealing in my view would be catastrophic, not just to the FBI but well beyond.”

He added to the hushed committee room that, “Honestly, as between really bad and catastrophic, I said to my team, we got to walk into the world of really bad.” 

Feinstein’s Democratic colleague, Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahySenate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump GOP senators work to get Trump on board with new disaster aid package Chances for disaster aid deal slip amid immigration fight MORE of Vermont, accused Comey of a double standard for not confirming the existence of an investigation into possible cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russia, even when his comments on the Clinton email investigation were making headlines.

But Comey parried that attack effectively, insisting that there was a consistent principle he had been able to uphold. 

“We treated it like we did with the Clinton investigation,” he said. “We didn’t say a word about it until months into it, and then the only thing we’ve confirmed so far about this is the same thing with the Clinton investigation: that we are investigating. And I would expect we’re not going to say another peep about it until we’re done.”

Comey also frustrated some of the Republican questioners. He avoided being drawn into comment on media reports that then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch had promised to curb the FBI investigation so it did not do excessive damage to Clinton.

He also came under questioning from Republicans, including Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOn The Money: Conservative blocks disaster relief bill | Trade high on agenda as Trump heads to Japan | Boeing reportedly faces SEC probe over 737 Max | Study finds CEO pay rising twice as fast as worker pay Conservative blocks House passage of disaster relief bill The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan MORE (Texas), about why he did not move toward charging Abedin, whom he said had forwarded emails containing classified information to her husband’s computer for him to print out.

Comey’s argument was that his agents had not been able to prove criminal intent on Abedin’s part.

The finer points of the Clinton investigation might have already been consigned to history were it not for the fact that the two principals in last year’s presidential election continue to litigate Comey’s actions. 

Clinton said at an event in New York on Tuesday that she was “on the way to winning until a combination of Jim Comey's letter on Oct. 28 and Russian WikiLeaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpA better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit MORE for his part tweeted on Tuesday evening that “FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!”

Some new details did emerge from the hearing. Comey appeared to obliquely confirm that he was looking into whether FBI agents had leaked information to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, an adviser and surrogate for Trump's campaign. 

He also displayed, once again, his gift for a telling sound bite, in describing WikiLeaks as trafficking in “intelligence porn.” 

The organization had acted, he alleged, as a mere “conduit for the Russian intelligence services or some other adversary of the United States just to push out information to damage the United States.”

WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange shot back on Twitter that the intelligence agencies “now go around proclaiming who is and who isn't a journalist or publisher,” adding, “What nonsense.” 

But the day’s key message was that Comey was not backing down from his decisions.  

At one point, he said that a junior lawyer in the bureau had asked whether the director should consider that his decision on the new Clinton emails might help elect Trump as president.

“And I said, thank you for raising that: not for a moment,” Comey said. “Down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent institution in America.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.