Comey defends FBI and himself in interview with House panels

He was asked frequently about whether the president obstructed justice.

  • Karoun Demirjian and Matt Zapotosky The Washington Post
  • Saturday, December 8, 2018 6:30pm
  • Nation-World

By Karoun Demirjian and Matt Zapotosky / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Former FBI director James Comey’s closed-door interview with House lawmakers Friday was largely a repetition of themes and facts that have emerged in previous public sessions, according to a transcript of the six-hour session that panel leaders released Saturday.

Republicans from the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform Committees peppered Comey with questions about the FBI’s probe into former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, including whether Comey would have dismissed former officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page from the probe had he known they were exchanging texts disparaging then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Comey said he probably would have.

However, the former director repeatedly declined to answer questions seeking detailed answers about elements of the FBI’s Russia investigation that Comey could not recall — such as who prepared the document launching the bureau’s counterintelligence investigation of individuals affiliated with Trump — or thought came too close to special counsel Robert Mueller III’s ongoing investigation of Russian interference.

Comey was asked frequently about whether the president obstructed justice when he fired him last year. An FBI lawyer sought to block him from answering a question about a memo Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote supporting the termination, saying it “goes to the special counsel’s investigation into obstruction.”

That seems to offer public confirmation from law enforcement that such a probe exists.

When it came to questions about his own conduct, however, Comey was loath to take any blame.

Several Democrats asked whether he had erred in superseding then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch to declare the Clinton probe closed — and then informing Congress just days before the 2016 election that it had been reopened. Comey responded by criticizing Lynch’s decision not to recuse herself from the investigation and said the timing of his decision to write to Congress had been approved by subordinates.

Asked whether he regretted not following normal Justice Department protocol, Comey said, “I don’t,” and disputed that he had done so.

“I still think the other alternative was worse,” Comey said, echoing a rationale he has expressed in public. “And as between bad and worse, I had to choose bad.”

Comey also deflected responsibility for relying on a Russian-sourced memo alleging connections between Lynch and the Clinton campaign that may have been falsified. Comey said that to his knowledge, “at the time,” the memo was genuine – but that he did not “know whether that view has changed.”

Some of the questioning focused on current events. The former FBI director said he was “glad” to hear of former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s cooperation with the Mueller probe, and he disputed the president’s suggestion that he and Mueller were close personal friends.

“I admire the heck out of the man, but I don’t know his phone number, I’ve never been to his house, I don’t know his children’s names,” Comey said — though he later said he would “bet my life that Bob Mueller will do things the right way, the way we would all want, whether we’re Republicans or Democrats, the way Americans should want.”

Comey also spoke favorably of William Barr, who Trump plans to nominate as the next attorney general — even as Democrats expressed concerns about past statements by Barr criticizing the special counsel’s investigation of Trump and endorsing fresh scrutiny of Clinton.

“He’s certainly fit to be attorney general,” Comey said of Barr, declining to say whether Barr’s past comments warranted him recusing himself from overseeing Mueller’s probe. “I think very highly of him. Whether he should be involved in those particular cases or not is a question I can’t answer.”

Comey is expected to return to Capitol Hill to complete his testimony before the two panels Dec. 17.

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