WASHINGTON — FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee today that he felt “mildly nauseous” at any thought that his actions in the Clinton email investigation could have handed the election to Donald Trump, but he’d make the same decision again.
Comey was also tight-lipped in response to any probing questions about the progress of the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, refusing to answer when Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked if President Trump was among the campaign figures ruled out in the investigation. “Not going to comment on anyone in particular,” Comey told the senator.
He did confirm that former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates “did” tell him of her concerns about former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn’s Russia ties, but “I don’t know whether I can talk about it in this forum.” Yates testifies next week before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee.
The director also wouldn’t go into detail in open session about the Steele dossier that contains rough intelligence related to the Trump campaign and Russia compiled by a former MI6 operative, saying in response to a series of queries from Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), “That’s not a question that I can answer in this forum. As you know, I briefed you privately on this, and if there’s more that’s necessary then I’d be happy to do it privately.”
“The FBI and the Justice Department have provided me material inconsistent answers in closed setting about its reported relationship with Mr. Steele,” Grassley said. “Will you commit to fully answering the questions from my March 6 and April 28 letter and providing all requested documents so that we can resolve those inconsistencies, even if in a closed session?”
Comey said he would give the chairman “all the information you need to address just that challenge, because I don’t believe there’s any inconsistency — I think there’s a misunderstanding, but in a classified setting I’ll give you what you need.”
“OK,” Grassley said. “Well, I hope to show you those inconsistencies.”
“I think I know what you’re — where the confusion is, but I think in a classified setting we can straighten it out,” Comey added.
Comey got questions early on in the hearing from Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) about his announcement 11 days before the election that investigators were looking at a new batch of Hillary Clinton’s emails, discovered on Anthony Weiner’s computer as his wife, Clinton aide Huma Abedin, had forward the emails to him “to print them out as a matter of convenience.”
“Why didn’t you just do the investigation as you would normally, with no public announcement?” Feinstein asked.
Comey said he met with his investigative team on Oct. 27, where they showed him metadata from Weiner’s computer that included “thousands of Secretary Clinton’s e-mails on that device, including what they thought might be the missing emails from her first three months of secretary of State.”
“We never found any emails from her first three months. She was using a Verizon BlackBerry then, and that’s obviously very important because if there was evidence that she was acting with bad intent, that’s where it would be, in the first three months,” he added.
After authorizing a request for a search warrant, Comey said he “could see two doors and they were both actions — one was labeled ‘speak,’ the other was labeled ‘conceal'” the fact that the investigation had reopened.
“‘Speak’ would be really bad. There’s an election in 11 days. Lordy, that would be really bad. Concealing in my view would be catastrophic, not just to the FBI, but well beyond. And honestly, between really bad and catastrophic, I said to my team we’ve got to walk into the world of really bad. I’ve got to tell Congress that we’re restarting this, not in some frivolous way, in a hugely significant way,” he continued.
The FBI was able to pore through the emails quicker than they first thought “thanks to the wizardry of our technology,” and “we did not find anything that changes our view of her intent.”
“Look, this is terrible. It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election. But honestly, it wouldn’t change the decision,” Comey told senators. “Everybody who disagrees with me has to come back to Oct. 28 with me and stare at this and tell me what you would do. Would you speak or would you conceal?”
When he was weighing the options, he noted, one of Comey’s junior lawyers said, “Should you consider that what you’re about to do may help elect Donald Trump president?”
“And I said, thank you for raising that, not for a moment because down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent institution in America,” Comey said. “I can’t consider for a second whose political fortunes will be affected in what way.”
The director argued that he has treated the investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia, ongoing since July, and the Clinton email probe “consistently under the same principles.”
“People forget we would not confirm the existence of the Hillary Clinton email investigation until three months after it began, even though it began with a public referral and the candidate herself talked about it,” he said. “In October of 2015, we confirmed it existed and then said not another word — not a peep about it until we were finished.”
On the Russia investigation, “I would expect we’re not going to say another peep about it until we’re done — and I don’t know what will be said when we’re done, but that’s the way we handled the Clinton investigation as well.”
Comey admitted that while he likes former Attorney General Loretta Lynch “very much,” her meeting with President Clinton on the tarmac in Phoenix last June “was the capper for me — and I then said, you know what, the department cannot by itself credibly end this.”
Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Comey about former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Trump surrogate, claiming that he had close sources in the FBI feeding him information about the Clinton probe. “Now either they’re lying or there’s a serious problem within the Bureau,” Leahy said.
“I don’t know yet,” the director replied. “But if I find out that people were leaking information about our investigations, whether it’s to reporters or to private parties, there will be severe consequences… I don’t know yet. But it’s a matter that I’m very, very interested in.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) grilled Comey on the fact that these forwarded Clinton emails were ending up on the laptop of the sexting former congressman now embroiled in a child pornography investigation. “Anybody that allows Anthony Weiner to have classified information probably should be prosecuted,” he said.
“There’s not an Anthony Weiner statute… there’s already a statute to cover it,” Comey said.
“With respect to Ms. Abedin in particular, we didn’t have any indication that she had a sense that what she was doing was in violation of the law,” he said later in the hearing. “Couldn’t prove any sort of criminal intent. Really, the central problem we have with the whole e-mail investigation was proving that people knew — the secretary and others — knew that they were doing — that they were communicating about classified information in a way that they shouldn’t be and proving that they had some sense of their doing something unlawful. That was our burden and we weren’t able to meet it.”
Comey also told Graham he’s “not aware of any request to the FBI” by the Obama White House to unmask the names of American citizens who were caught up in incidental surveillance of foreign targets in 2015 or 2016.