WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — The House Judiciary and Oversight Committees released the 235-page transcript of their interview with former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation James Comey over the weekend.
Comey answered lawmakers' questions for six hours on Friday and is scheduled to return to Capitol Hill for another closed-door session next Monday as Republicans try to wrap up a year-long investigation into alleged FBI bias during the 2016 presidential election and the origins of the bureau's probe into President Donald Trump and his campaign associates.
Time is running out for the Republican-led investigation. The incoming Democratic majority have repeatedly called the probe "wasteful" and said they will shut it down when they retake the majority next year.
Republicans are using their final weeks in power to question as many witnesses as possible. Before the end of the 115th Congress, House Judiciary and Oversight investigators expect to hear from Comey, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch and they are continuing to push the Justice Department for testimony from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Below are five highlights from Comey's marathon deposition Friday.
Republicans walked out of the Friday hearing frustrated that Comey and his FBI-appointed attorney Cecilia Bessee were blocking information from Congress.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., fumed that the Justice Department counsel was "guiding" Comey not to answer questions "that are clearly items at the core of our investigation." When Comey returns to Capitol Hill next week, lawmakers hope to have an agreement with the Justice Department allowing Comey to provide information they believe was improperly kept from the public record.
Other lawmakers took to social media to characterize Comey as uncooperative and evasive. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., tweeted that Comey said "I don't know" 166 times, "I don't remember" 71 times and "I don't recall" 8 times. "Does this sound like someone interested in telling the full story?" he asked.
President Trump took note of the 245 times the ex-FBI chief was not able to answer a question. Without specification, Trump accused Comey of lying to Congress. "Leakin’ James Comey must have set a record for who lied the most to Congress in one day. His Friday testimony was so untruthful!" Trump tweeted. "This whole deal is a Rigged Fraud headed up by dishonest people who would do anything so that I could not become President. They are now exposed!"
On Friday, House Judiciary Committee member Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., described Comey's testimony as "selective amnesia."
According to the transcript, the questions Comey and his FBI attorney refused to answer were mostly related to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation of President Trump and Russia. He also couldn't remember who initiated the Trump-Russia counterintelligence investigation or which FBI official was responsible for interviewing Hillary Clinton about her use of a private email server.
More often, Comey was unable to comment on hypothetical scenarios or questions related to an individual's motivation or intent. On numerous occasions, the former director was unable to recall specific details, dates or interactions that may be critical to House investigators but not necessarily memorable for someone in charge of a 35,000-person agency.
Democrats defended Comey's performance noting the all-day hearing "offered us nothing new." In a joint statement, ranking members on the Judiciary and Oversight Committees, Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., noted, "As the Special Counsel’s investigation appears to be closing in on the President and his associates, our Republican colleagues seem intent on spending their final days in power attempting to provide cover to President Trump and attempting to re-litigate the Department of Justice’s decision not to prosecute Secretary Clinton."
FBI MONITORED 4 AMERICANS
According to previous statements, the FBI began its counterintelligence investigation of possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russian government officials in late July 2016. Comey clarified Friday, that the investigation began with four Americans who were suspected of aiding the Kremlin in efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
"We opened investigations on four Americans to see if there was any connection between those four Americans and the Russian interference effort. And those four Americans did not include the candidate," Comey said. The former FBI chief said he did not recall ever seeing the document that initiated that investigation.
Previously, the public knew about two American suspects, former Trump campaign advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos was recently sentenced to 14 days in prison for lying to the special counsel about meeting with Russians to get "dirt" on Hillary Clinton. Comey was unable to disclose the identities of the other two Americans whose activities raised red flags at the FBI. He would not confirm if they were working directly with the Trump campaign.
Very few people in the government knew about the investigation, Comey noted. Special agent Peter Strzok was "one of the handful of people in the entire world" who knew the FBI was looking into individuals connected to Trump in the summer of 2016. Strzok worked on both the Clinton email investigation and the Mueller investigation until he was fired from the FBI for exchanging anti-Trump texts with another Justice Department employee, Lisa Page.
A DOJ inspector general's report on the FBI's handling of investigations during the 2016 presidential election confirmed that Strzok showed signs of bias but that did not impact the outcome of the Clinton or Trump investigations. Notably, Strzok was in a position to leak the existence of the Trump investigation and cripple the president's chances of winning, but it remained under wraps until after the election.
FBI DID NOT VERIFY STEELE DOSSIER
Trump allies have repeatedly called into question the basis for the FBI monitoring Page and Papadopoulos during the 2016 campaign. Republicans claim the FBI was "spying" on Trump and had abused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to illegally surveil a political campaign.
That alleged FISA abuse has been at the core of the Judiciary and Oversight Committees' investigation. Former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe reportedly confirmed that the bureau's counterintelligence investigation hinged on the intelligence report produced by former British spy and long-time FBI contact Christopher Steele. The so-called Steele dossier included a number of unverified claims about Trump and Russia and was submitted by the FBI as evidence in an Oct. 2016 application for FISA surveillance on Carter Page.
The Steele dossier was commissioned as opposition research on behalf of Hillary Clinton's campaign. Trump allies claim these political origins invalidate it as evidence. Comey admitted Friday that the FBI did not corroborate the information in the Steele dossier before submitting it to a FISA judge but did consider its origins as partisan political opposition research.
Comey confirmed that the FBI's verification of the Steele dossier was in its "infancy" when the document was submitted to the FISA court. There was an effort by the FBI to replicate Steele's conclusions. That effort continued for more than six months and was still ongoing after Trump fired Comey in May 2017.
While the FBI was not able to confirm the facts in the dossier, Comey said the information was taken seriously because it came from "a reliable source with a track record." Comey further acknowledged that he knew the Steele dossier was part of a "politically motivated effort" first by Republicans, then by Democrats. He learned about the political origins of the dossier in "September or October," which was "before" he signed off on the FISA application to monitor Carter Page.
When asked if he had concerns about the process for authorizing FISA surveillance on Trump associates either while serving as director or now, Comey replied, "I do not."
Contrary to Republican claims about the importance of the Steele dossier, Comey reaffirmed that the Trump-Russia investigation began with Papadopoulos who disclosed his knowledge of Russian election interference during a conversation in London with an Australian ambassador. The ambassador then alerted the FBI. "It was weeks or months later that the so-called Steele dossier came to our attention," Comey said.
OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE
Although the FBI attorney accompanying James Comey was accused of preventing Comey from providing information to the committee, on more than one occasion, Cecilia Bessee confirmed the Justice Department is pursuing an obstruction of justice case against President Trump.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., asked Comey if he believed President Trump had obstructed justice when he fired him last year. Comey vacillated saying he could not answer "because I'm a witness, in a sense."
Trump justified his decision to fire Comey with a memo drafted by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. In the memo, Rosenstein argued that Comey's mishandling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation made him unfit to continue his ten-year term as FBI director. Trump cited the Rosenstein memo in his official letter dismissing Comey on May 8, 2017.
Gowdy questioned whether Rosenstein's memo outlined a defensible case for Comey's termination. Ms. Bessee interrupted, stating the chairman's question "goes to the special counsel's investigation into obstruction," adding the witness would not be able to answer.
The questions about alleged obstruction of justice began shortly after Comey was fired. By June 2017, the former FBI director publicly divulged a series of "troubling" one-on-one interactions he had with President Trump which he documented in contemporaneous memos. Comey leaked his memos to the press.
In testimony before Congress, he suggested he was terminated because he would not back down from leading the FBI's investigation into the Trump campaign contacts with Russian officials. He also admitted that he leaked the memos "because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel."
The memos suggest that President Trump attempted to intervene in the investigation and asked the FBI director to show leniency in investigating former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn was recently charged with lying to federal officials about his contact with Russians and failing to register as a foreign agent.
On Friday, Comey was unclear when the Justice Department took up its obstruction of justice case. He confirmed that he understood President Trump's remarks about "letting Flynn go" as a request "to drop a criminal investigation." A request to drop a criminal investigation, Comey continued, "is a corrupt endeavor to impede the administration of justice" that required further investigation.
Outside the confines of a House investigative hearing, Comey said definitively that his one-on-one meetings with Trump about the Russia investigation were evidence of obstruction and cause for the appointment of a special counsel.
“Obviously it’s evidence of obstruction of justice," Comey told an audience in New York City Sunday. "How to handle that was something we struggled with."
Comey has come under scrutiny for his decision to leak his memos to the press after being fired. President Trump was even prepared to prosecute Comey for the leaks but was advised against taking that politically perilous course, according to a report from the New York Times.
MUELLER AND COMEY ARE NOT 'BEST FRIENDS'
Before Comey testified on Friday morning, President Trump sent a series of tweets lashing out at James Comey and the so-called "witch hunt" led by Special Counsel Mueller. In on tweet, Trump revived his allegation that Mueller is conflicted because he and Comey "are Best Friends."
Incoming Democratic Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Nadler, took the closed-door hearing to get Comey on the record about his alleged closeness to Mueller, who led the FBI from 2001 to 2013. Comey supervised Mueller's work for part of that time while serving as deputy attorney general. Comey and Mueller threatened to resign together in 2004 over the George W. Bush administration's practice of warrantless domestic surveillance.
"I admire the heck out of the man, but I don't know his phone number, I've never been to his house, I don't know his children's names. I think I had a meal once alone with him in a restaurant. I like him," Comey said. "I'm an associate of his who admires him greatly. We're not friends in any social sense."
Nadler pressed further, asking about the existence of photos of the two men hugging and kissing. Earlier this year, Trump told The Daily Caller that he could produce "100 pictures" of Comey and Mueller "hugging and kissing each other" as proof of their closeness.
Comey responded that he was not aware of any such photograph, adding. "I'm an admirer but not that kind of admirer."
BuzzFeed reporter Jason Leopold attempted to corroborate Trump's claim of photographic evidence and sent a Freedom of Information Act Request to the Justice Department for access to the pictures. The DOJ responded in October, stating, "We were unable to records responsive to your request."
Comey defended Robert Mueller's character and warned that President Trump's attacks on the Justice Department and FBI are hurting the credibility of those institutions and making America "less safe."