Republican House members grilled former FBI director James B. Comey on Monday about whether law enforcement officials unfairly handled a January 2017 interview in which former national security adviser Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to investigators — an assertion that Comey repeatedly disputed during the six-hour, closed-door session.
According to a newly released transcript of the interview, GOP members of the House Judiciary and Oversight committees focused intently on whether federal investigators should have taken better care to ensure that Flynn was accompanied by a representative of the White House Counsel’s Office during his interview and that he knew lying to FBI investigators was a crime. Comey said it was “totally reasonable” and “consistent” with FBI practices not to warn Flynn of the consequences of lying and suggested that officials were simply “encouraging” Flynn to proceed without a lawyer when they told him requesting one could slow things down.
President Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill and members of Flynn’s legal team have sought to discredit the charges against Flynn by suggesting the FBI unfairly set him up — an assertion that Flynn contradicted in court Tuesday when he stated that he knew lying to the FBI was a crime.
Last year, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to FBI officials about his conversations with Russia’s then-ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and misrepresenting on Justice Department forms his work to advance the Turkish government’s interests. He has been cooperating since with three investigations, including special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe, and is awaiting sentencing. An expected Tuesday sentencing for Flynn was postponed when the judge warned he might face jail time.
On Monday, GOP House members suggested that the FBI should have heeded Trump’s request to Comey to “see your way clear . . . to letting Flynn go” as an exercise of the president’s legitimate pardon authority. They also charged that Comey should have warned Trump that Flynn had lied about his contacts with Russian officials to Vice President Pence. Comey casually scoffed at the suggestion, calling it “an option” but adding that “I don’t think it’s one a reasonable investigator would take.”
During the interview, House GOP members asked questions that hinted at a larger charge — that the FBI intentionally treated Trump and members of his administration differently than they treated Obama administration officials during investigations.
In particular, GOP members pounced on memos Comey kept of his interactions with Trump, questioning why he had decided to share his details of “private” conversations with others and whether he had broken FBI protocols in doing so.
Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) also asked why Comey had alerted senior FBI officials through his memos of “potential obstruction of justice” during his private conversations with Trump and not when President Barack Obama suggested on “60 Minutes” that Hillary Clinton had erred in using a private email server but committed no crime. Comey stressed that one communication was private and the other public.
GOP lawmakers also asked Comey why he had not taken more-definitive steps to inform the public that Trump was not under investigation, as he had told Trump in early January 2017. Comey stated that though the FBI did not have an open investigation on Trump at the time, the investigation came close enough to the president that there was a reasonable expectation he might be implicated — and he did not want to have to correct the record.
Comey also intimated that he never intended to tell Trump he was not being investigated during that meeting and did so only because the conversation “started to go off the rails.” He stated that others, including former acting attorney general Dana Boente, were also “hoping that would go away.”
Republican investigators also focused attention on decisions Comey made regarding the Clinton email probe and a dossier detailing allegations of Trump’s personal and financial ties to Russia while Comey was director of the FBI.
Comey said he never knew the identity of the firms behind the dossier and determined to tell Trump about the more salacious allegations in it only because he feared they might become public.
He also disputed that the FBI’s assessment that the information in the dossier was “unverified” meant it was wrong — stressing that classification was meant only to indicate that the FBI had not yet completed its work to independently verify it.
Comey also defended the FBI’s decision to leave information about Obama’s contacts with Clinton through her private email out of official statements about the email probe, stressing he did so to ensure that any “bad guys” with access to the trove would not discover they had access to Obama’s incognito account.
Comey claimed to have no independent knowledge of the details of an assertion made in an email from FBI counterintelligence official Bill Priestap to former FBI counterintelligence official Peter Strzok forwarding other materials that suggested a Clinton staffer’s private email account had been compromised by foreign actors.