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 ComeyDershowitz: Trump's lawyers could force Rosenstein to recuse himself from Mueller probe New York Times defends bombshell Rosenstein report Donald Trump’s Rosenstein dilemma 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 ClintonPompeo: 'We've not been successful' in changing US-Russia relations Michael Moore ties Obama to Trump's win in Michigan in 2016 The Memo: Could Kavanaugh furor spark another ‘year of the woman’? 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 GowdySunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Gowdy requests FEMA administrator’s travel records amid allegations Nunes: Russia probe documents should be released before election 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 KrishnamoorthiTrump, Obamas and Clintons among leaders mourning Aretha Franklin A new law just built a bridge over America’s skills gap Dems seek probe into EPA head’s meetings with former clients 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 LofgrenBipartisan group of lawmakers offer bill to provide certainty following online sales tax ruling Women poised to take charge in Dem majority Live coverage: Tensions mount as Rosenstein grilled by GOP 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 JordanHillicon Valley: Trump cyber strategy lets US go on offense | AT&T urges court to let Time Warner merger stand | Conservatives want wife of DOJ official to testify | Facebook, nonprofits team up to fight fake news | DC camera hacker pleads guilty FBI memos detail ‘partisan axes,’ secret conflicts behind the Russia election meddling assessment Republicans threaten to subpoena Nellie Ohr 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 GrassleySenate panel reaches tentative deal for Kavanaugh accuser to testify Thursday Kavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week Aide for GOP involved in Kavanaugh nomination resigns after past sexual harassment allegation surfaces MORE (R-Iowa) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Kim, Moon toss ball to Trump in ‘last, best chance’ for Korean peace GOP senator: Kavanaugh accuser 'moving the goalposts' 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 FeinsteinSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate The Memo: Could Kavanaugh furor spark another ‘year of the woman’? Sexual assault is not a game — stop using women to score political points 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 Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh, accuser say they’re prepared to testify Goodlatte: Administration undercut law, Congress by setting refugee cap Virginia reps urge Trump to declare federal emergency ahead of Hurricane Florence MORE (R-Va.) and Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Stacey PlaskettStacey PlaskettDem lawmakers, activists get #PayBlackWomen trending Lawmakers press FEMA on restoring power to Puerto Rico Former Hill aide sentenced to prison term for sharing explicit videos of congresswoman MORE (D-Virgin Islands), Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDems seek probe into EPA head’s meetings with former clients Hillicon Valley: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | Sparks fly at hearing on social media | First House Republican backs net neutrality bill | Meet the DNC's cyber guru | Sinclair defiant after merger setback Sparks fly at hearing on anti-conservative bias in tech MORE (D-Md.) and Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeePelosi calls on Ryan to bring long-term Violence Against Women Act to floor Congress prepares to punt biggest political battles until after midterms Jackson Lee: Dems must be 'vigilant' in ensuring all Americans have right to vote  MORE (D-Texas).