Former FBI director James B. Comey met behind closed doors Friday with members of two House panels as part of a politically fraught inquiry into the conduct of federal law enforcement officials during investigations of the Trump campaign’s alleged Russia ties and Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state.
The session, which lasted over six hours, is expected to continue on Dec. 17, Comey said, although a transcript of his exchanges with the panels thus far is still expected to be released over the weekend.
Lawmakers on the House Judiciary and Oversight committees peppered Comey with questions on a range of topics, including the substance of his memos concerning his interactions with President Trump, the details of his firing and his knowledge of the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Comey was also asked about the conduct of his former FBI subordinates Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who exchanged anti-Trump text messages while investigating the Trump campaign’s alleged Russia connections and Clinton’s emails, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a closed hearing.
But Comey emerged from the session complaining that questions about the Russia probe constituted only a “teeny part” of the members’ questions, which were mostly focused on “Hillary Clinton’s emails, for heaven’s sake.”
“I’m not sure we need to do this at all,” he continued, “but I’m trying to respect the institution.”
The interview covered many of the same topics that Comey has testified about in several public hearings to date and was subject to many of the same limitations the FBI has placed on other witnesses who have appeared before the joint panel — including a requirement not to discuss ongoing investigations, much to the frustration of the panel’s Republican members.
Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Calif.), a former chairman and retiring member of the Oversight Committee, said that an FBI lawyer in the interview room frequently blocked Comey from answering certain questions “at the core of our investigation.” Comey, Issa added, “never seemed to argue or even be a bit disappointed when they told him he didn’t have to answer something.”
Democrats rejected that suggestion, saying that Comey answered most questions — and that the transcript would prove that.
The joint probe, which has been driven exclusively by Republicans, is hurtling toward a close by year’s end. That is when control of House committees will transfer to Democrats, who are determined to curtail or at least change the focus of investigations that they say were designed to undermine law enforcement agencies and the work of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation.
Speaking after the hearing, Comey defended the actions of law enforcement officials and rejected suggestions by Republican lawmakers that bias contributed to the FBI’s decision to apply to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. This week, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he also intends to look into whether the surveillance application process was conducted properly when he takes over the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Comey said he had “total confidence” in the FBI “and that the entire case was handled in a thoughtful, responsible way.”
“The notion that FISA was abused here was nonsense,” he said, referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Comey’s testimony is possibly one of the last that the joint panel will hear. The former FBI director initially insisted on giving public testimony but agreed to the closed-door interview and to drop a legal challenge to a subpoena by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). Comey did so under the condition that a transcript of the interview be released within 24 hours of his testimony, he announced via a tweet earlier this week.
“This is the closest I can get to public testimony,” Comey wrote.
Former attorney general Loretta E. Lynch, whom Goodlatte also subpoenaed last month, is expected to appear for a closed-door interview within the next week.
The interviews with Comey and Lynch are not likely to satisfy several Republican members of the panels who are closely allied with Trump. They are far more interested in another round of questioning with Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
Lawmakers such as Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who is set to become the Oversight Committee’s ranking Republican next year, want to ask Rosenstein to explain comments that he reportedly made to colleagues suggesting that they record conversations with Trump and possibly seek to remove him from office using procedures outlined in the 25th Amendment.
Jordan and Meadows also have sought to impeach Rosenstein, accusing him of not complying with Congress’s demands for information regarding the FBI and the Justice Department’s investigations of the Trump campaign and Clinton.
But with little time left before Congress disbands for the year, it is unclear whether lawmakers will take any further steps to bring Rosenstein back for an interview.