Comey reveals new details on Russia probe during House testimony

Former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Mazie Hirono: ‘Walls are closing in’ on Trump 10 pieces of evidence against most diabolical Russian spy ever MORE testified to House lawmakers this week that the counterintelligence investigation into possible conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign began by examining four Americans.

While Comey steadfastly denied the probe was focused on a political campaign and declined to identify who the four individuals are, he did note President TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE was not among them.

“I was briefed sometime at the end of July that the FBI had opened counterintelligence investigations of four individuals to see if there was a connection between those — any of those four and the Russian effort,” Comey said Friday during closed-door questioning, according to a transcript of the interview released Saturday. “And those four Americans did not include the candidate.”

An FBI counsel at the interview said that Comey could not reveal the individuals’ identities “if they are individuals that are currently being looked at or investigated as part of the Russian investigation.”

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The revelation was one of several included in the 235-page testimony released Saturday afternoon, part of Comey’s deal to testify before the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees behind closed doors for six hours Friday.

And while Comey could not comment on the special counsel’s ongoing investigation during the testimony, he forcefully defended Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE, the FBI and its agents that have come under GOP-scrutiny.

In particular, Comey went to bat for former counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok, who was fired earlier this year for sending disparaging text messages about the president while he worked on two key FBI investigations during the 2016 presidential election.

He said he saw no evidence of bias in Strzok’s work on the investigation into Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRoger Stone fundraising off promise not to testify against Trump Rivaling chants of 'USA,' 'lock him up' greet Flynn after sentencing hearing The Hill's 12:30 Report — Flynn awaits sentencing | White House signals it wants to avoid shutdown MORE’s handling of classified materials while secretary of State.

Still, Comey said that had he known about some of the now-surfaced texts that Strzok had sent to Lisa Page — a former FBI lawyer Strzok was having an affair with at the time — he would have removed the agent for even giving the appearance of bias against Trump.

But Comey appeared to dismiss claims Strzok may have acted out of bias to hurt Trump’s campaign — an allegation some Republicans have made after a text message from Strzok surfaced saying “we’ll stop” Trump during the heated presidential race.

Comey argued that since Strzok was involved in the counterintelligence probe that tied in some members of the Trump campaign, the then-agent had ample opportunity to hurt the then-Republican candidate, which he didn’t take.

“[Strzok] also was one of the handful of people in the entire world who knew we were investigating four Americans who had some connection to Mr. Trump during the summer of 2016, and he didn't tell a soul,” Comey told the congressional investigators.

“So it's hard to reconcile that with his being on Team Clinton. 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,” he continued.

A Justice Department watchdog released a scathing report earlier this year that faulted Strzok for casting a dark cloud over the department for his text message, but Inspector General Michael Horowitz found there was no evidence political bias influenced the Clinton probe decisions or that he used his position to work against Trump.

Comey also stood by his handling of the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server, saying that he still thinks it was better for him to have revealed that the FBI was reexamining the case just weeks before the 2016 election, rather than not disclose it to the public.

“Do I stay silent and leave the Congress and the American people relying on something I now know is a lie or do I speak? And those are two really bad options. And my choice was to take the least bad … Because to conceal would be to destroy the FBI and the Department of Justice,” Comey said.

The highly controversial decision, which Clinton has maintained played a significant role in the 2016 election results, was also the subject of a DOJ inspector general report released earlier this year. That report found that Comey broke with departmental standards and practices, but did not find that he was politically biased or otherwise influenced.

And while Republican lawmakers pressed Comey on whether he still believes that Clinton didn’t deserve to face charges, he said he considered the case closed.

“There’s no serious person who thinks there’s a prosecutable case there,” he said, later claiming that “anybody that thinks we were on team Clinton trying to cut her a break is smoking something.”

Comey also shed light on an investigation by the FBI’s inspector general into potential leaks coming from the FBI’s field office in New York. He said he ordered the probe after Rudy Giuliani, now the president’s attorney, made public statements in October 2016 hinting that more news on the Clinton emails probe was about to break.

Comey sent a letter to Congress saying he was taking another look at Clinton’s emails two days after Giuliani’s comments. Giuliani, now Trump's lawyer, has since said that he was asked about FBI agents about the remarks, but has asserted that he wasn’t leaked any information.

“In particular, in I want to say mid-October, maybe a little bit later, Mr. Giuliani was making statements that appeared to be based on his knowledge of workings inside the FBI New York,” Comey said.

The former FBI chief said he was fired before the investigation could be completed, but noted that it was the same probe that led to the firing of former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabe10 pieces of evidence against most diabolical Russian spy ever No glory in James Comey getting away with his abuse of FBI power Mueller rebukes Flynn, who 'chose' to make false statements to FBI MORE for making an unauthorized disclosure to the media.

Comey also used the interview to continue his criticism of the president. Both he and Trump have publicly exchanged barbs in the months since Comey’s firing.

“I think we have become numb to lying and attacks on the rule of law by the president, all of us have to a certain extent, and it's something we can't ever become numb to,” Comey said Friday.

And during another lengthy exchange, Comey elaborated on his past comparison of Trump to a mob boss, saying the president favored loyalty toward him over the betterment of the nation.

“It's not about any higher values or institutional values. It's about how are you feeding me the boss, how are you taking care of me the boss,” the former FBI director said.

Comey did offer some praise for Mueller, who has attracted Trump's ire as he continues to investigate possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign — an allegation Trump has repeatedly denied.

“There are not many things I would bet my life on,” Comey said. “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.”

Friday’s interview won’t be Comey’s last this month; he agreed to appear before the committees again on Dec. 17 after Republicans said they still have question for the ex-FBI head.

Democrats will take over control of the House committees in January, but Comey told reporters on Friday that he would also be willing to appear before the Democratic-led panels if requested to do so.

And he had harsh words for Republicans on the committees after the hearing, tweeting Friday evening that the interview “wasn’t a search for truth, but a desperate attempt to find anything that can be used to attack the institutions of justice investigating this president.”

“They came up empty today but will try again,” he added.