This article has been updated with new reporting from the Wall Street Journal.
President Trump’s first tweeted response to Thursday night’s release of the memos written by former FBI director James B. Comey was, from start to finish, incorrect.
The memos do not show that “there was NO COLLUSION.” In fact, in the memo dated March 30, Trump suggests that it would be good to determine whether there was some “satellite” to his campaign — some adviser or tangential figure — who might have had improper contacts with the Russians. He says this in the context of a Washington Post article about a man who had had contact with just such a person: George Papadopoulos. He was the “satellite” adviser who learned from a London-based professor that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton — and who triggered the entire counterintelligence investigation after he told that to an Australian diplomat, who then told the FBI.
What’s more, there’s no way for any memo to show there was no collusion. No matter what a memo says, there could still be evidence of collusion elsewhere. And that argument, of course, also holds for Trump’s claim of NO OBSTRUCTION: If the memos showed no obstruction, that wouldn’t mean there wasn’t any somewhere else.
But the memos do hint at obstruction, the same obstruction that has been known about for months. One memo details the conversation between Trump and Comey in which Trump tells his FBI director that he hopes Comey can let the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn go. This is a central piece of the obstruction puzzle, an apparent effort by the president to cut short a criminal investigation. Comey himself told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that this particular incident constituted evidence of obstruction.
That memo, too, is the one that Comey asked a friend to share with the New York Times last May. And it’s that memo that’s at the center of the third claim in Trump’s tweet, that the memos show that Comey “leaked classified information.”
In fact, they show the opposite.
A timeline is important here. Trump fired Comey on May 9, 2017. On May 11, the New York Times reported on details from Comey’s meeting with Trump at the end of January, during which Trump asked Comey for loyalty.
“The conversation that night in January, Mr. Comey now believes, was a harbinger of his downfall this week as head of the F.B.I.,” the Times’s Michael Schmidt wrote, “according to two people who have heard his account of the dinner.” There is no mention in this article of any memo, which is important.
That May 11 article prompted a response from the president on Twitter the next day, a Friday.
Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee last June how he reacted when he saw that tweet.
“The president tweeted on Friday after I got fired that I better hope there’s not tapes. I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday night, because it didn’t dawn on me originally, that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might a tape. My judgment was, I need to get that out into the public square. I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself for a variety of reasons. I asked him to because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. I asked a close friend to do it.
That friend was Columbia University professor Daniel Richman. He spoke with Schmidt, who then reported on Trump’s comments about letting the Flynn investigation go as memorialized in the memo dated Feb. 14, 2017.
After Comey revealed that he had given the memo to a friend, Trump seized upon the idea that some of the memos Comey wrote contained classified information.
“James Comey leaked CLASSIFIED INFORMATION to the media,” he wrote in a July 10 tweet. “That is so illegal!” But as we noted at the time there was no evidence that the memo Comey shared was one of those that was classified. (Trump’s tweet was based on a Fox News report that was later corrected.)
We now know with certainty that Trump was wrong.
There are two Times stories at issue here, using information from two different memos. The first Times story centers on the conversation in that Jan. 28 dinner between Trump and Comey. The classification originally applied to the document was “confidential.”
(But for the Department of Justice releasing it on Thursday, we would have had to wait until Dec. 31, 2042, for it to be declassified.)
Then there was the memo for the Feb. 14 conversation. It was unclassified.
The important thing to remember is that we only know Comey gave the latter memo to Richman. Richman later told CNN that he had never been given any memo marked “classified,” but it’s not clear whether the versions from Comey would have been marked. Clearly someone leaked details that were contained in the former memo to the Times for its report about Trump’s loyalty request — but not the memo itself. If the existing redactions in that document are any guide, it was classified as “confidential” mostly for its discussion of Flynn, not the details about the dinner with Trump.
In July of last year, Fox News reported that Richman had told them that he had received four memos from Comey. (It appears to be the only outlet to have reported this.) Slate theorizes that this is why Republicans wanted the memos to be released: After all, if four of the seven memos included classified information (as was known before Thursday’s release), then, if he received four documents, Richman must have received at least one document that was classified. The release of the memos, though, make clear that the memo which we know Comey gave to Richman wasn’t classified. Slate asked Richman to clarified what he had received, without response; they speculate that perhaps Richman received four pages of documents. Regardless, the conflict between the Fox News report and the number of classified documents wasn’t newly revealed on Thursday.
Update: Comey’s book addresses what he gave Richman.
Comey writes, “I told him I was going to send him one unclassified memo and I wanted him to share the substance of the memo –but not the memo itself – with a reporter.” That memo, he says, was the one from Feb. 14.
It’s worth walking through this again, for clarity. On May 11, the Times reported on a dinner that Comey wrote about in a memo that was classified as “confidential,” though the loyalty request part of that document doesn’t seem to have been the trigger for the classification. Trump tweeted about that report, prompting Comey the next Monday to give at least one unclassified memo to a friend to leak to the Times. He did so.
Put more simply, there’s no indication from the release on Thursday that Comey gave Richman classified information. There’s no indication in the memos themselves that Comey leaked anything at all, of course, which also runs contrary to Trump’s tweet.
Trump’s tweet wasn’t entirely wrong, mind you. Comey’s memos did indeed prompt a response of “Wow!”
Update: The Wall Street Journal reports that Comey did share four memos with Richman, two of which contained classified information as written. The paper’s Byron Tau and Aruna Viswanatha write:
“Of those two memos, Mr. Comey himself redacted elements of one that he knew to be classified to protect secrets before he handed the documents over to his friend. He determined at the time that another memo contained no classified information, but after he left the Federal Bureau of Investigation, bureau officials upgraded it to ‘confidential,’ the lowest level of classification.”
Only two of the memos were classified as confidential: The one detailing the Jan. 28 dinner and the last one, written in April. It’s not clear when Comey gave the memos to Richman.
Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.