From the very start of Tuesday’s White House press briefing, press secretary Sarah Sanders had no real answers on former national security adviser Michael Flynn. White House hopes that a judge would rebuke the FBI for its treatment of Flynn quickly and rather spectacularly fell apart. Flynn himself told the judge that he didn’t feel duped into lying, as his and Trump’s supporters have alleged. It all rendered Sanders’s argument earlier in the day that Flynn had been “ambushed" pretty well undercut.
So she changed the subject to James B. Comey — and butchered what Comey actually said.
Flynn didn’t make the case the White House desired, so Sanders suggested Comey had. Here’s what she said about Comey, who was FBI director when Flynn lied repeatedly as he was interviewed in January 2017 (emphasis added):
“What we do know that was inappropriate by own self-admittance of James Comey is that the FBI broke standard protocol in a way that they came in and ambushed General Flynn and in the way that they questioned him and in the way that they encouraged him not to have White House counsel’s office present. And we know that because James Comey told us that, and he said that the very reason that they did was because —the only reason that they did it — it was the Trump administration and they thought they could get away with it. Those are facts, and certainly there may be other issues there but that we don’t have any reason to want to walk that back.
The first problem with this is that Comey never said the Flynn interview was inappropriate, or anything of the sort. In an interview with MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace last week, he said FBI agents would normally go through the White House Counsel’s Office to interview the likes of Flynn. But he never said that was FBI “protocol” or even required. Instead, he was remarking on the lack of organization in the Trump White House, especially in its early days.
“[It’s] something we — I — probably wouldn’t have done or maybe gotten away with in a more organized investigation — a more organized administration,” Comey said, adding: “I thought, ‘It’s early enough; let’s just send a couple guys over.'”
Comey wasn’t saying that the agents didn’t run through the proper channels; he’s saying the White House didn’t run it through the proper channels. Comey’s “gotten away with” phrasing does make it sound somewhat nefarious, but his point was broadly about how the White House would normally stand in the way of such things — not that there was anything wrong with what the agents did. If there was a protocol that was broken, it was the White House’s own.
Sanders went on to say Comey admitted protocol had been broken in two other ways: “in the way that they questioned [Flynn], and in the way that they encouraged him not to have White House Counsel’s Office present.” That is quite simply nowhere to be found in Comey’s comments — anywhere. In fact, in sworn testimony Monday to the House Oversight Committee, Comey stated flatly that the interview didn’t break protocol in those ways:
REP TREY GOWDY (R-S.C.): Why not advise General Flynn of the consequences of making false statements to the FBI?
COMEY. Two reasons, really. First, the deputy director [of the FBI, Andrew McCabe] called him, told him what the subject matter was, told him he was welcome to have a representative from White House counsel there. 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 noncustodial interviews.
Comey’s comments lent themselves nicely to this kind of mischaracterization. Sometimes his ego gets the better of him, and in this case he basically seemed to be bragging about penetrating the White House’s bureaucratic defenses.
But Sanders’s summary of them is wrong in multiple ways — and the fact that she has to effectively invent things that he said in defense of the White House’s Flynn allegations pretty much says it all about how much substance is behind them.