National Security

Comey defends FBI Russia probe from GOP criticism

Greg Nash

Former FBI Director James Comey on Wednesday sought to defend the bureau’s 2016 investigation into Russian election interference as Senate Republicans alleged an anti-Trump bias by top bureau officials. 

Comey testified before the GOP-led Senate Judiciary Committee, which is examining the origins of the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the presidential race and ties between the Kremlin and Trump.

While Comey indicated he would’ve made some decisions differently had he known about the faults in applications for wiretaps on then-Trump campaign aide Carter Page, he defended the investigation as a whole.  

“I would say in the main it was done by the book, it was appropriate and it was essential that it be done…There are parts of it that are concerning … but overall I’m proud of the work,” Comey said.  

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is months into an investigation that touches broadly on “Crossfire Hurricane,” the name for the FBI’s investigation; the subsequent probe led by former special counsel Robert Mueller; and warrant applications under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). 

When asked by Graham whether it was “fair to say” the FBI investigation was “not done by the book,” Comey replied: “No, I don’t think that is fair to say.”

His response did little to sway Republicans, who spent the hours-long hearing quizzing him on the investigation and venting about the handling of warrant applications. 

“God help us all if this was done by the book,” Graham said. “It was such an egregious violation of fairness, altering exculpatory information, failing to tell the court the unreliability of information. … If this is by the book, we need to rewrite the book and I promise you we will.” 

Republicans were frustrated after Comey either declined to weigh in or said he could not recall in response to several of their questions about the warrant applications tied to Page, questions that come four years after the inquiry was launched.

“You don’t seem to know anything about an investigation that you ran,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). 

Comey responded that while Inspector General Michael Horowitz found last year that the FBI did not meet its responsibility of “heightened candor” in the four Page FISA warrants, he argued “that’s a separate question from whether the FBI director should have been briefed on the individual portions of the FBI investigation.”  

Republicans’ questions at times took a turn for the personal, with some questioning whether Comey should’ve worked at the FBI and occasionally making jabs about his intelligence.

“You’re a smart guy … honors graduate, William & Mary … Chicago law school, and you don’t like attention,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) noted at one point. 

“Mr. Comey, if you’d chosen a different career, say, a driving instructor, and you’d never pursued a career at the FBI, don’t you think the FBI would be better off?” he added.

Comey responded with a scoff, noting that he had never “pursued” a career at the agency and had been hired when he was serving as a law professor before Graham declared “that’s enough,” and brought Kennedy’s questioning to an end. 

Democrats, meanwhile, have accused Republicans of using the powerful Judiciary Committee to target Trump’s perceived political enemies. Trump has repeatedly lashed out at the intelligence community, while attacking the probe into Russian election interference and his 2016 campaign as a “witch hunt.” 

“This seems more like a political errand for President Trump’s reelection effort. … I think it’s offensive to all Americans who pay taxes, I realize the president does not,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a former chairman and current member of the committee. 

They also used the hearing to put a spotlight on recent controversies including Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacists — which Comey called a “firehouse spraying gas” as the FBI tries to fight a “fire of racist violence”— and a New York Times report that found that the president has personal debt exceeding $400 million.   

Comey told Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) that personal debt is a serious consideration when granting security clearances because it could be leveraged by a foreign foe. 

“A person’s financial situation could make them vulnerable to coercion by an adversary and allow an adversary to do what we try to do to foreign government officials we find are indebted, which is to try to recruit them to our side,” Comey said.  

In another exchange Comey said Trump’s “significant indebtedness” only further raises questions about his warmer tone toward Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

Another issue that was repeatedly raised by both sides was a document declassified by Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe, which Graham released one day prior to Comey’s testimony, that included unverified Russian intelligence about 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton

This document, which was previously dismissed by the Senate Intelligence Committee, cited unverified intelligence that alleged Clinton had approved of a plan to “stir up a scandal” against Trump by trying to tie him to Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Its release immediately sparked backlash that Ratcliffe was trusting a foreign adversary, and one who the intelligence community has concluded was trying to help Trump and hurt Clinton in 2016 through disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks on Democrats.

To critics, the timing seemed all too convenient politically, with some describing it as a politicized effort to undermine the Russia probe with the help of the president’s top intelligence official. While Ratcliffe has denied that this information has been assessed as Russian disinformation, he also noted that he isn’t sure of the “extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.” The DNI did not include additional information to corroborate this unsubstantiated allegation. 

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) raised red flags over a letter declassified by Ratcliffe, saying the move “rings just innumerable bells about the dangers of selective declassification.”  

“I am really concerned that we are treating this Ratcliffe letter as something at all serious or credible,” Whitehouse said. “I hope very much that nobody from this committee had any hand in generating this letter.” 

Tags Dick Durbin Donald Trump Hillary Clinton James Comey John Kennedy John Ratcliffe Lindsey Graham Mike Lee Patrick Leahy Robert Mueller Sheldon Whitehouse Vladimir Putin

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