FBI director to Congress: No regrets

FBI director to Congress: No regrets
© Greg Nash

FBI Director James Comey isn’t sorry.

Comey on Wednesday faced fierce pressure from both Republicans and Democrats to account for his impact on the 2016 presidential election, but he satisfied neither side with his answers.

The tense, four-hour appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee exposed still-raw emotions over President Trump’s surprise victory in November — and highlighted a cloud of distrust that hangs over the bureau’s handling of investigations into both presidential candidates.

The towering former prosecutor delivered a lengthy and passionate defense of his handling of the investigation into Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton2020 Democrats target federal ban on abortion funding Hillary Clinton slams Trump for spreading 'sexist trash' about Pelosi Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign MORE’s private email server — which Clinton says cost her the election.

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If that infuriated Democrats, the FBI director frustrated Republicans when he declined to answer questions challenging the evidence of collusion between Trump and Russia — and why the bureau wasn't more aggressive with Clinton.

Comey did allow that he felt “mildly nauseous” at the notion the bureau’s conduct may have influenced the outcome of the election.

But he insisted that he did not regret sending the Oct. 28 letter to Congress that revealed the FBI had reopened its investigation into Clinton, then considered closed.

The letter was almost immediately made public by Republican lawmakers, roiling the final days of the election.

Comey provided perhaps the most detailed accounting to date of his decisionmaking process throughout the campaign, long under fierce scrutiny from Democrats who are frustrated that he did not also make public the bureau’s nascent probe into Trump campaign ties to Russia.

“I sat there that morning [Oct. 28] and I could not see a door labeled ‘no action’ here,” Comey told senators, his voice urgent. “I could see two doors and they were both actions. One was labeled ‘speak,’ the other was labeled ‘conceal.’”

Because he had already told lawmakers that the probe was closed, restarting the investigation in such a “hugely significant way” without alerting Congress would be “catastrophic,” he claimed.

He said he went public, calling Clinton “extremely careless,” when the bureau closed the probe in July because he felt that then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s tarmac meeting with former president Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBudowsky: 3 big dangers for Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Another VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us? MORE had undermined the public’s faith in the investigation.

He stayed silent on the Trump campaign investigation, he said, because at the time of the election it was in its very early stages. The bureau opened that probe in July.

The explanation failed to satisfy Democrats.

“It’s still very unclear — and I hope, director, that you will clear this up — why the FBI’s treatment of these two investigations was so dramatically different,” Judiciary Committee ranking member 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 (D-Calif.) said.

Although Comey got some cover from Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTrump goes scorched earth against impeachment talk The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Bipartisan House bill calls for strategy to protect 5G networks from foreign threats MORE (R-Texas), who expressed dismay that Comey was being “blamed” for Clinton’s loss, by and large Republicans were equally hard on him — albeit for different reasons.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTrump Citizenship and Immigration Services head out at agency Trump-Pelosi fight threatens drug pricing talks Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Senators unveil sweeping bipartisan health care package | House lawmakers float Medicare pricing reforms | Dems offer bill to guarantee abortion access MORE (R-Iowa) opened the hearing with a litany of criticisms of the bureau's handling of the Clinton investigation, accusing it of failing to follow up on “credible evidence of intent to hide federal records from Congress and the public” in its "haste to end a tough, politically charged investigation.”

“A cloud of doubt hangs over the FBI’s objectivity," Grassley told a packed hearing room.

He peppered Comey with questions about an unverified dossier compiled by a former MI6 agent whom the bureau reportedly considered paying if he were able to substantiate the dossier.

Grassley demanded to know whether the bureau had investigated claims that Lynch had given her assurances that “the political fix was in no matter what” in the Clinton probe.

Comey declined to answer most of Grassley’s pointed questions, citing the open setting.

He was equally circumspect when pushed by Democrats to provide some indication of whether the president himself is under investigation in the Russia probe.

Comey did provide a handful of new details about the Clinton investigation.

He appeared to obliquely confirm that the bureau is conducting an internal investigation into apparent leaks to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) about the investigation during the campaign.

Asked by 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 (D-Vt.) about Giuliani’s public claims that agents were talking to him, Comey said he did know “yet,” referring to it as “a matter the FBI is looking into.”

He also gave a more detailed accounting of the discovery of the emails on former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-N.Y.) laptop that led to the Oct. 28 letter.

“Somehow, [longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s] emails were being forwarded to Anthony Weiner, including classified information,’’ Comey said, noting later that Abedin was forwarding emails to print out. Abedin is married to Weiner, who was being investigated for allegedly sending sexually explicit texts to a minor, although the two are now separated.

Thousands of emails were sent, Comey said, but only some of them contained classified information. And the bureau was unable to prove that Abedin knew she was violating the law.

Comey also shed light on one other investigation: the Justice Department Inspector General probe into his own handling of the Clinton probe.

The IG has already interviewed him and likely will again, Comey said, insisting that he welcomes the scrutiny.

“If I did something wrong, I want to hear that,” he said, calling the choices he has made “painful.”

But, he added, “I think I’ve done the right thing at each turn.’’