Comey likely to dodge Russia questions
Focus to be on strange Trump meetings
While former FBI Director James B. Comey intends to speak at length about his strange and strained relationship with President Trump when he testifies before Congress on Thursday, former bureau officials said he is unlikely to shed new light on the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election and any links with members of the Trump campaign.
In prepared remarks that were released Wednesday, Mr. Comey outlines a series of interactions with the president that concerned the former director, including Mr. Trump’s complaints about a “cloud” over his administration because of the bureau’s Russia investigation and a request that the FBI drop its probe into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
But with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Mr. Comey’s predecessor at the bureau who was appointed to oversee the Russia investigation, Mr. Comey will have coordinated with him what topics can be addressed and which questions he should decline to answer to avoid harming the ongoing probe.
The Russia probe in particular will
likely get “a wide berth,” said Nancy Savage, executive director of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI.
Despite the strict parameters, Washington observers point to the recently fired FBI director’s habit of making news when he testifies before Congress as evidence that it won’t be a hearing to miss.
“Even though he’ll be careful not to editorialize too much — he is highly protective of his reputation and will want to avoid anything that looks like payback for his pink slip — simply answering lawmakers’ questions could still elicit quite a show,” Elizabeth Goitein, a co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote in an analysis published Wednesday in Time.
Mr. Comey’s testimony was released Wednesday by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which will hear from the former director in public testimony Thursday. In the remarks, Mr. Comey said he did, in fact, assure Mr. Trump repeatedly that the president was not personally under investigation — backing up what the White House has said and undercutting critics who have said the president is a target.
But the degree to which Mr. Comey sticks to a script may provide an indication of the nature of Mr. Mueller’s investigation, said Ron Hosko, who retired in 2014 as assistant director of the FBI and is the current president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund.
“The more broadly Comey plays with his adjectives and descriptions may be an indicator Mueller doesn’t think there is an obstruction case there,” Mr. Hosko said.
The underlying concern being that if investigators are pursuing an obstruction case against the president, and if Mr. Comey’s recollections of the events at hand change even a little, he opens himself up to attack by any good defense lawyer, he said.
“Even subtle changes risk an attack that the story just keeps getting better,” Mr. Hosko said.
Mr. Comey’s prepared remarks recount five interactions with the president that, according to the former FBI director, appeared to be an effort to demand loyalty.
Mr. Comey emerged from one Jan. 27 meeting, just a week after the inauguration, saying he felt Mr. Trump was trying to pressure him by asking him — for a third time — whether he wanted to stay on as FBI director.
“My instincts told me that the oneon-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch,” Mr. Comey says.
The seven pages of testimony detail some of Mr. Trump’s requests in their interactions, including a quick end to the investigation into Mr. Flynn, who had just resigned as national security adviser.
“He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go,” Mr. Trump said, according to Mr. Comey’s recounting of a one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office in February.
“I did not say I would ‘Let this go,’” Mr. Comey says.
Mr. Trump also asked that Mr. Comey release information that the president wasn’t under investigation.
“I told him I would see what we could do, and that we would do our investigative work well and as quickly as we could,” Mr. Comey recalled.
Mr. Comey was so put off by his interactions with Mr. Trump — which included repeated calls and the troubling Oval Office meeting — that he demanded the Justice Department try to persuade the president to stop.
According to the prepared remarks, Mr. Comey twice spoke with Justice Department leaders to alert them about Mr. Trump’s interactions but appeared to have his requests for assistance rebuffed.
Mr. Comey said he first spoke to Attorney General Jeff Sessions after the Feb. 14 Oval Office meeting, which occurred after the attorney general and other top national security officials left the room.
“I took the opportunity to implore the Attorney General to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me,” Mr. Comey said. “I told the AG that what had just happened — him being asked to leave while the FBI Director, who reports to the AG, remained behind — was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply.”
Mr. Comey’s second request for guidance on handling the interactions with the president came after a March 30 phone call, during which he said Mr. Trump asked him what the FBI could do to “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigation.
Mr. Comey said he called acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente to report the substance of the conversation. But he had yet to hear back from Mr. Boente before Mr. Trump called Mr. Comey again on April 11 to ask “what I had done about his request that I ‘get out’ that he is not personally under investigation.”
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on Mr. Comey’s characterizations.
Mr. Comey also noted an instance of Mr. Trump’s interest in Virginia politics and its relationship to the bureau’s deputy director, Andrew McCabe, who took over for Mr. Comey after his dismissal.
In 2015, Mr. McCabe’s wife, Jill McCabe — a Democrat — ran for state Senate and accepted roughly $500,000 from Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s political organization. Mr. McAuliffe is a longtime ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Although Mr. McCabe has said he informed the FBI about his wife’s candidacy and sought ethics advice from the agency, critics have pointed to the relationship as troubling.
“In an abrupt shift,” Mr. Comey recalled, “[Mr. Trump] turned the conversation to FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, saying he hadn’t brought up ‘the McCabe thing’ because I had said McCabe was honorable, although McAuliffe was close to the Clintons and had given him (I think he meant Deputy Director McCabe’s wife) campaign money. Although I didn’t understand why the President was bringing this up, I repeated that Mr. McCabe was an honorable person.”
The prepared remarks also offered a comparison between the frequency of Mr. Comey’s interactions with Mr. Trump during the first four months he was in office and his interactions with President Obama.
Mr. Comey said he spoke alone with Mr. Obama on two occasions and never by phone. By contrast, Mr. Comey said he had nine one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump, including three in person and six by phone. The former director said he never felt the need to capture the essence of his conversations with Mr. Obama but felt compelled to do so with Mr. Trump, beginning immediately after their first meeting during the presidential transition. He said he began typing notes about the first meeting “on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out.”
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Wednesday afternoon that she found the timing of the released testimony “a little bit interesting.”
She said she didn’t know whether Mr. Trump had a chance to review Mr. Comey’s testimony. The president was holding an event in Ohio when the testimony was released by the Senate intelligence committee.