For over six hours on Friday, former FBI Director James Comey participated in a voluntary, transcribed interview with the House Oversight and Judiciary committees. Republicans are enjoying the last few weeks of their House majority, and seem determined to use every ounce of power they have left before it goes away in January. But if their goal was to use Friday’s testimony to undermine Robert Mueller’s probe, they surely left Capitol Hill disappointed.
As committee Republicans fixated on Hillary Clinton’s emails, the Steele Dossier and text messages between two FBI agents accused of expressing bias against Donald Trump, Comey turned the proceeding into a defense of the special counsel’s investigation and the integrity of the Department of Justice. No wonder President Trump launched into yet another Twitter tirade on Sunday morning, labeling Comey’s testimony “so untruthful!” while complaining that this "whole deal is a Rigged Fraud headed up by dishonest people who would do anything so that I could not become President. They are now exposed!”
With all of the news happening this past week, reviewing a 235-page transcript was probably not at the top of a lot of people’s to-do lists. With that in mind, here are 10 takeaways that are worth a second look.
- In a response to a question from House oversight chair Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., about the FBI’s authority to “launch a counterintelligence investigation into a major political campaign,” Comey says: “I don't know for a variety of reasons. I've never encountered a circumstance where an investigation into a political campaign was launched, and so I don't know how that would be done.” Translation: No political campaign has ever conducted itself the way Trump’s campaign did and so there is no past precedent to rely on.
- Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who will become the House Judiciary Committee’s chairman in January, flat-out asked Comey if he agreed with the president’s “characterization that the special counsel’s investigation is a witch hunt.” Comey rejected the assertion, noting, “I do not.”
- Nadler then asked Comey how he would “characterize the special counsel investigation and its importance not only to our national security, but as a means of restoring public confidence in our election and law enforcement agencies?” Comey responded with a defense of the Mueller probe, saying: “Watching it from the outside, my judgment as an experienced prosecutor and investigator is it's been conducted with extraordinary speed, with extraordinary professionalism, and zero disclosure outside of public court filings. It represents the way our criminal justice system is supposed to work in investigating, and I believe it's incredibly important to the rule of law in this country that the work be allowed to finish.”
- This proceeding was also an opportunity for Comey to address some of Trump’s favorite conspiracy theories about the relationship between Comey and Mueller. Comey was asked if he was indeed “best friends” with Mueller as the president has alleged. “I am not,” Comey replied. “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. I think I had a meal once alone with him in a restaurant. I like him. I am not a — I'm an associate of his who admires him greatly. We're not friends in any social sense.”
- While he may not be best friends with Mueller, Comey was happy to vouch for his integrity: “There are not many things I would bet my life on. I 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 was asked about the president’s efforts to “undermine the credibility of his investigators at the Justice Department.” Comey’s response included an explanation of how damaging the president’s words can be to our institutions and to our national security: “It's shortsighted, and anybody who knows those organizations, knows it's not true. … Those kind of lies hurt the ability of the FBI to be believed at a doorway or in a courtroom. That makes all of us less safe. These are honest institutions made up of normal flawed human beings, but people committed to doing things the right way. When they're lied about constantly, it hurts the faith and confidence of the American people in them, and that is bad for all of us. I don't care what your political stripe is. … Our national security turns upon the ability of an FBI agent to convince the girlfriend of a jihadi that we will protect her if she cooperates with us. If we're seen as a political group of one kind or another, an untrustworthy group, that trust is eroded and the agent loses the ability to make that case.”
- As has been the case for two years, Republicans on the Oversight and Judiciary Committee used their time with Comey to try and undermine the Russia probe. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., incoming oversight chairman, gave Comey a chance to define the threat posed by Russia. “The aim of the Russian effort in 2016 was to destabilize, undermine, damage our democracy,” Comey told the committees. “That was their overwhelming goal. And so you have a foreign nation that is attacking the United States of America in an effort to undermine that which is essentially us, our democratic process. So that's a very serious threat. And understanding whether any Americans were part of that effort is incredibly important because the threat of those Americans by virtue of their alliance with the Russians would pose to our country.”
- Cummings followed up by asking what would happen if the special counsel’s investigation was impeded or ended prematurely. “Well, in my opinion, it would undermine our national security by not holding accountable people who might have been involved in either the Russians or people who worked with them, first,” Comey responded. “And second, it would send an absolutely appalling message about the rule of law in this country of ours. … The Russians' goal was for everyone in the world to have doubt about the nature and credibility of the American democracy, to dirty it up so it's not a shining city on the hill. So their attack had implications for that, the role of the American democratic experiment. And if someone were to order it stopped, the investigation into that, it would have a similar effect.”
- Returning to another one of Trump’s favorite conspiracy theories — that President Barack Obama ordered the FBI to spy on his campaign — Comey definitively rejected the theory, noting that “no one would dare ask me or anybody else at the FBI that because they know the reaction, which would be not only no, but hell no.”
- Towards the end of the proceeding, Comey was asked about the president’s habit of commenting on active investigations, and the former FBI director did not mince words: “I think we have become numb to lying and attacks on the rule of law by the president, all of us have to a certain extent, and it's something we can't ever become numb to.”
Given the consistency of Comey’s public statements, it’s hard to see what Trump and congressional Republicans hoped to gain by giving him another platform. As things stand, they are planning to bring him back for more closed-door testimony on Dec. 17. Whatever comes out of that hearing, however, is unlikely to make the president feel better about the Russian investigation.