Comey “lied in Congress to Senator G”
— President Trump, in a tweet, April 16, 2018

In his continuing attacks on former FBI director James B. Comey — whom Trump fired in May 2017 — the president has a long list of complaints. We have previously examined his claim that Comey illegally leaked classified information, finding it wanting. Now let’s turn to his complaint that Comey lied to “Senator G” — Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

This is a reference to an exchange that Comey had with Grassley at a congressional hearing May 3, 2017, before he was fired. Grassley asked two direct questions.

“Director Comey, have you ever been an anonymous source in news reports about matters relating to the Trump investigation or the Clinton investigation?”

Comey replied: “Never.”

“Question two and relatively related: Have you ever authorized someone else at the FBI to be an anonymous source in news reports about the Trump investigation or the Clinton investigation?”

Comey replied: “No.”

So why does Trump say Comey lied? In the past, he has said he’s referring to the actions of Comey’s former deputy, Andrew McCabe.

McCabe was fired just before his retirement after a Justice Department Inspector General investigation found that he lied about his involvement in a Wall Street Journal report that disclosed the existence of an FBI probe of the Clinton Foundation. McCabe claims that Comey knew that he had leaked sensitive information, but the IG report undercuts that claim.

The Facts

On Oct. 23, 2016, the Wall Street Journal published an article that highlighted the fact that McCabe’s wife had received $675,000 in donations from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), a close Hillary Clinton ally, and the Virginia Democratic Party when she unsuccessfully sought a seat in the Virginia Senate. The donations, and her race, took place before McCabe was involved in the Clinton email investigation. But the article caused a stir in the campaign — Trump has repeatedly mischaracterized it — and it put McCabe on the spot.

The IG report said the article prompted “substantial public discussion” about whether McCabe’s oversight of the email investigation was appropriate. The next day, the Wall Street Journal reporter (Devlin Barrett, who now works for The Washington Post) emailed the FBI that he was working on a follow-up article that would focus on McCabe’s handling of the Clinton Foundation probe, including possible instructions not to make “overt moves” during the election season. A follow-up call with the reporter by the FBI found that he had sources who said McCabe had ordered a “stand-down” on the Clinton Foundation probe.

To rebut the narrative, the report said, McCabe authorized an aide to leak details about a confrontation he had had Aug. 12 with a Justice Department official who had expressed concerns about the foundation probe progressing rapidly in the election season. “Are you telling me that I need to shut down a validly predicated investigation?” McCabe supposedly asked the official, according to the later Wall Street Journal report.

The problem is that in recounting the conversation, the article disclosed an active investigation — one that Comey had pointedly declined to reveal in public testimony just a few months before.

Once the Journal article was published, the IG report suggests, McCabe tried to cover his tracks. He called two top FBI officials to berate them for the leaks in the article, the report says. (McCabe said he did not recall making the calls.) And then he misled Comey, the report says.

In a statement defending himself against charges of unauthorized leaking, McCabe said: “I chose to share with a reporter through my public affairs officer and a legal counselor. As deputy director, I was one of only a few people who had the authority to do that. It was not a secret, it took place over several days, and others, including the director, were aware of the interaction with the reporter.”

Note that McCabe does not say Comey authorized the conversation — and Grassley did not ask whether Comey was aware of anyone in the FBI acting as an anonymous source. So just on that score, it’s unclear how Trump could say Comey lied. But the IG report — which Trump has touted on Twitter — further makes the case that Comey’s version of events rings the most true — that McCabe had not told Comey and so Comey was unaware of McCabe’s role.

As Comey told investigators, the FBI does not disclose “a criminal investigation . . . anonymously sourced in a newspaper.”

McCabe and Comey disagree sharply on what happened behind closed doors when they met to discuss the article. McCabe claims that he told Comey that he had authorized the leak and Comey “did not react negatively, just kind of accepted it.” (McCabe does not claim he gave Comey a heads-up on what he was planning to do.)

But Comey says McCabe “definitely did not tell me that he authorized” the disclosure of the DOJ call and, in fact, gave the opposite impression by complaining about the leak. “I have a strong impression he conveyed to me, ‘It wasn’t me, boss,’ ” he recalled. Indeed, he added, “I actually didn’t suspect Andy.”

“Just to make sure there’s no fuzz on it, I did not authorize this. I would not have authorized this,” Comey said. “If someone says that I did, then we ought to have another conversation because I, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

McCabe also claimed that other FBI executives were aware that he was responsible for the leak but the IG could find little evidence of that. Ultimately, after telling investigators under oath initially that he was not responsible for the leak, McCabe acknowledged that he was behind the leak. The report said that McCabe “lacked candor” — lied — three times under oath.

(Note: Though Trump has specifically referred to the McCabe matter in relation to the Grassley exchange, administration officials also pointed to a March 15 letter from Grassley and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The letter referenced questions about whether Comey, in a private interview with the Judiciary Committee, appeared to be inconsistent with information contained in documents concerning Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act applications regarding former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. The reference at the moment is too vague to make a determination about whether Comey misled the committee, and even Grassley and Graham are not sure, asking for more information. So we will keep an eye on this.)

The Pinocchio Test

In the wake of the IG report, it appears that Trump’s original rationale that Comey lied to Grassley has turned to dust. Ordinarily, we’d label that as Four Pinnochios. But Trump’s latest reference to a lie is so vague that it could refer to just about anything, including perhaps the question raised by Grassley and Graham in their letter. So, for the moment, we will keep this at Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

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Three Pinocchios
Comey “lied in Congress to Senator G”
in a tweet
Monday, April 16, 2018