James Comey’s riveting testimony Thursday may have done no political favours for U.S. President Donald Trump, but the former FBI director himself didn’t come out unscathed.
Comey spoke for about three hours with the Senate intelligence committee, which is investigating whether Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election and whether members of the Trump campaign team co-ordinated efforts with officials from Moscow.
He made a number of troubling statements about Trump, accusing the president of:
- Demanding a loyalty pledge.
- Firing him because of his investigation into Russia election tampering.
- Pressuring him to drop a Russia-related probe into Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Trump denies all those accusations.
Some of Comey’s testimony, however, also raised questions about his own actions. For example, Comey testified about a memo he wrote describing his conversations with U.S. President Donald Trump that he then shared with a friend to leak it to the press.
The former FBI director said he needed to get that out into the public square, that he didn’t do it himself “for a variety of reasons.” But he thought that his leak might prompt the appointment of a special counsel.
It was a surprising statement, given that Comey himself has criticized leaks.
Not surprisingly, Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz seized on this admission and fired back, saying Comey admitted that he “unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the president.”
Mark Rozell, dean of George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, agreed that Comey, by admitting to the leak, “doesn’t come out looking entirely clean.”
“Rather than giving the information out himself and bearing direct responsibility for that action, he snuck it through a personal friend, a university professor, knowing that he would leak it to the New York Times,” Rozell told CBC News.
Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, wrote in his blog that he found Comey’s admission about the leak “deeply troubling from a professional and ethical standpoint.”
“If Comey was sure of his right to release the memo, why use a law professor to avoid fingerprints?”
That Comey may have been motivated to leak the memo out of good intentions doesn’t negate the concerns over his chosen means of a leak, Turley wrote.
And the timing of the leak, he wrote, most clearly benefitted Comey and not the cause of a special counsel.
“Comey clearly understood that these memos would be sought. That leads inevitably to the question of both motivation as well as means.”
In his testimony, Comey also explained why he didn’t take his concerns about Trump to officials in the Justice Department. He said it didn’t make sense to inform Attorney General Jeff Sessions, since Sessions was going to recuse himself from the Russia election related probe.
As well, Comey said there were no other Senate-confirmed leaders in the Justice Department at that point to take his concerns to, so he said it was decided the best move would be to “keep it in a box” and “then figure out what to do with it down the road.”
‘Can’t buy the argument’
“Frankly, I can’t buy the argument that there was no one he could go to,” George Terwilliger, former deputy attorney general under president George H. W. Bush, said on PBS Newshour.
Terwilliger said Comey could have gone to the acting deputy attorney general at the time to express his concerns.
“It’s part of a pattern of Mr. Comey resorting to self-help because he feels like he’s the lone ranger who is out there carrying the sword of righteousness forward,” he said.
Writing in the New York Times, Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said that much of Comey’s conduct struck her as bizarre.
“The vicarious leaking of his memo probably tops that list, and his reason for not alerting Sessions of Trump’s misconduct, at a time when Sessions was still overseeing the Russia investigation, is pretty thin.”
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, seemed to slightly criticize Comey for saying nothing to the president about his concerns over the president’s behaviour.
“You’re big, you’re strong, I know the Oval Office, and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation,” Feinstein said. ”But why didn’t you stop and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong, I cannot discuss that with you’?”
“Maybe if I were stronger, I would have,” Comey replied. “I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in.”
Comey’s testimony didn’t take aim at only the president. Others were criticized too. And one of the surprising bits of testimony had nothing to do with Trump.
“The bombshell was how former attorney general Loretta Lynch attempted to interfere in the [Hillary] Clinton email investigation by trying to make it less damaging to Clinton from a PR perspective,” said Republican strategist Evan Siegfried.
Comey testified that the FBI was getting to a place where Comey and Lynch were going to have to talk publicly about the investigation. Comey said he wanted to know if Lynch was going to authorize them to confirm an investigation was taking place.
“At one point, the attorney general had directed me not to call it an investigation, but instead to call it a ‘matter,’ which confused me and concerned me.”
Comey said it gave him the impression that Lynch was looking to align the way they talked about it with the way Clinton’s political campaign was describing the same activity, “which was inaccurate.”
“So that gave me a queasy feeling.”
The media, as well, came in for some bruising based on Comey’s testimony. He was asked about some of the stories published regarding the Russia investigation, allegations of collusion and whether he was “stunned about how wrong they got the facts.”
“Yes.There have been many, many stories reportedly based on classified information, about, well, about lots of stuff, especially about Russia, that are just dead wrong,” Comey said.
New York Times story
Comey took aim specifically at a New York Times blockbuster article published in February headlined: “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence.”
“In the main, it was not true,” Comey said.
He was questioned about the story again by Senate intelligence member Senator Tom Cotton, who asked if it was fair to characterize the story as “almost entirely wrong.”
“Yes,” Comey said.
Later, in a statement, the Times said it was standing by its story.