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 ComeyGiuliani told investigators it was OK to 'throw a fake' during campaign DOJ watchdog unable to determine if FBI fed Giuliani information ahead of 2016 election Biden sister has book deal, set to publish in April 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 ClintonPennsylvania GOP authorizes subpoenas in election probe We must mount an all-country response to help our Afghan allies Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader 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 GowdyTrey GowdyTrey Gowdy sets goal of avoiding ideological echo chamber with Fox News show Fox News signs Trey Gowdy, Dan Bongino for new shows Pompeo rebukes Biden's new foreign policy MORE (R-S.C.) characterized the interview as nothing more than a standard deposition.

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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 KrishnamoorthiBiden under pressure to ratchet up vaccine aid It's time to put patients and taxpayers ahead of transplant industry opportunists House subcommittee presses Johnson & Johnson on plan to offload baby powder liabilities 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 LofgrenSpotlight turns to GOP's McCarthy in Jan. 6 probe Now is the time for bankruptcy venue reform Biden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report MORE (D-Calif.).

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

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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 JordanAllies see rising prospect of Trump 2024 White House bid Republican leaders misjudged Jan. 6 committee Watchdog group seeks ethics probe over McCarthy's Jan. 6 comments 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 (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleyWoman allegedly abused by Nassar after he was reported to FBI: 'I should not be here' Democrat rips Justice for not appearing at US gymnastics hearing Senators denounce protest staged outside home of Justice Kavanaugh MORE (R-Iowa) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right GOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization 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 FeinsteinWarren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Democrat rips Justice for not appearing at US gymnastics hearing Former California senator prods Feinstein to consider retirement 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 GoodlatteThe job of shielding journalists is not finished Bottom line No documents? Hoping for legalization? Be wary of Joe Biden MORE (R-Va.) and Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Stacey PlaskettStacey Plaskett20 years later: Washington policymakers remember 9/11 Plaskett slams GOP rep for saying Black Lives Matter 'doesn't like the old-fashioned family' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Ahead: One-shot vax, easing restrictions, fiscal help MORE (D-Virgin Islands), Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinGOP seeks to keep spotlight on Afghanistan as Dems advance Biden's .5T spending plan Raskin writing memoir about Jan. 6, son's suicide House Democrats demand details after Border Patrol agents accused of profiling Latinos in Michigan MORE (D-Md.) and Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeAngelina Jolie spotted in Capitol meeting with senators Elon Musk after Texas Gov. Abbott invokes him: 'I would prefer to stay out of politics' Without major changes, more Americans could be victims of online crime MORE (D-Texas).