Comey defends FBI actions on Flynn in House interview

Former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyDem lawmaker: Mueller report shows 'substantial body of evidence' on obstruction Mueller's done, and Dems should be too — because Trump is no Nixon Time for Democrats to accept reality MORE in his final interview with House Republicans this week defended the bureau’s contacts with former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
 
Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and Judiciary panel appeared to press Comey in particular on whether officials at the FBI deviated from the agency's norms and practices when they interviewed Flynn last year, according to a 173-page transcript of the Monday hearing released Tuesday.
 
Comey maintained that FBI officials followed regular procedure in their questioning of the former top Trump administration figure, who has pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about his contacts with a Russian ambassador.

House Oversight Chairman Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyDemocrats put harassment allegations against Trump on back burner Democrats seize on Mueller-Barr friction 'Queer Eye' stars push for Equality Act MORE (R-S.C.) pressed Comey during the Monday hearing on why the former FBI chief didn't coordinate the interview with Flynn through the White House counsel.

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Comey responded that the Flynn interview was an unusual case. The particular process of coordinating an interview through the White House counsel is used in a “more established environment” and the administration was in the midst of a transition, he said.

Flynn, a retired three-star general who also formerly led the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) under the Obama administration, pleaded guilty last year to lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak.

The White House and its allies have attempted to argue that agents essentially entrapped Flynn by not informing the Trump aide that it is a crime to lie to federal agents. Flynn has himself disagreed with that argument in court, telling the judge overseeing his case that he knew it was illegal to make false statements to the FBI.

Comey maintained on Monday that Flynn, a top U.S. intelligence official, did not need to be told that lying to federal investigators was against the law. The former FBI chief said that the agents’ decision not to warn Flynn about the penalties for lying to the FBI is “totally reasonable, consistent with the FBI’s practice in thousands of interviews.”

“First, the Deputy Director called him, told him what the subject matter was, told him he was welcome to have a representative from White House Counsel there,” Comey told lawmakers, according to the transcript. “So he knew what he was going to be asked about. He was an extraordinarily experienced person and so reasonably should be assumed to understand you can't lie to the FBI.”

“Second, it's not protocol. The FBI does not do that in non-custodial interviews," Comey continued. "And, third, you want to find out what the witness will say to you before you heat up an interview by raising the prospect that the witness might be lying to you.”

Comey said his focus at the time was finding out why Flynn was lying to Vice President Pence about his communications with the Russians, not whether he had violated the Logan Act, a statute that prohibits private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments.

Flynn had discouraged Kislyak from retaliating against the U.S. after the Obama administration imposed sanctions on the Kremlin — a conversation Flynn had before President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassroots America shows the people support Donald Trump Trump speaks to rebel Libyan general attacking Tripoli Dem lawmaker: Mueller report shows 'substantial body of evidence' on obstruction MORE's inauguration.

“That made no sense to us, and we wanted to understand what is happening here,” Comey said.

Comey also used his interview Monday with the GOP-led House panels, as well as another one earlier this month, to push back on criticism he has received about his decisions during the 2016 presidential election.

House Republicans have fiercely criticized Comey over his decisions surrounding the probes into Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassroots America shows the people support Donald Trump Ex-FBI official: 'Links and coordination' with Russia happen everyday Ex-FBI agent: Americans should be 'disgusted' by Russian interference in Mueller report MORE's use of a private email server while serving as secretary of State and the start of the probe into Russia's meddling in the election.

In the interview Monday, Comey and Democrats on the panels criticized Trump and the president's recent tweets labeling his former personal attorney Michael Cohen a “rat” after Cohen pleaded guilty to charges in federal court.

“In general, it is deeply concerning when a president offers a view of a pending case, no matter who the president is, and because of its ability to — of those comments to affect the case at hand and also to send dangerous messages about the commitment of this country to the apolitical exercise of investigative power,” Comey said, according to the transcript.

Comey also defended the Russia investigation against GOP claims that a dossier on alleged ties between Trump and Russia that was funded in part by Democrats served as the primary basis for launching the counterintelligence probe.

“The bureau began an effort — the information was from a credible source, was in its center consistent with other information we already have, right. The heart of the Steele dossier is the Russians are coming to mess with our election. That was consistent with other information we had,” Comey said.

When pressed about him describing the information as “unverified,” Comey said the bureau was unable to replicate what information the source had given them.

“The bureau was trying to replicate the entire thing, see how many of those sources we could make our own, and that was an effort underway when I left. And so I think when the term — at least to my recollection, the term 'unverified' means we haven't finished that work,” he said.

The release of the transcript comes after Flynn made the unexpected request on Tuesday to postpone his sentencing in court after U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan blasted him for his actions while serving as a top White House administration official.

“This is a very serious offense,” Sullivan said in D.C. federal court on Tuesday. “A high-ranking senior official of the government making false statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation while on the physical premises of the of the White House."

After the interview on Monday, Comey came out swinging at GOP lawmakers who had subpoenaed him to appear behind closed-doors — an order he unsuccessfully tried to quash before agreeing to initially testify on Dec. 3.

Comey made headlines on Monday with his comments directed toward the president and House Republicans, saying the GOP's strategy of remaining silent while Trump attacks the FBI "makes no sense."

“Republicans used to understand that the actions of a president matter, the words of a president matter, the rule of law matters, and the truth matters. Where are those Republicans today,” Comey said after his interview. “At some point, someone has to stand up and in the fear of Fox News and fear of their base, and fear of mean tweets, stand up for the values of this country and not slink away into retirement.”

Morgan Chalfant contributed reporting.