As I wrote last week, the Republican Congress largely has failed to hold accountable the masterminds behind the biggest political scandal in U.S. history: The unprecedented weaponization of our law enforcement and intelligence apparatus to spy on a presidential campaign and sabotage an incoming administration.
The man primarily responsible for executing the scheme, former FBI Director James Comey, exited the Trump Administration as a martyr and a hero. Republican lawmakers blasted the president for his (totally justified) firing of the deceptive FBI director in May 2017, lauding his public service and reputation even as the disturbing details of the way his agency spied on the Trump campaign and hid the probe from Congress were coming into view.
After successfully escaping any accountability for his actions, it’s no surprise that Comey now is threatening to thwart Congress once again. On Thanksgiving morning, Comey responded on Twitter to a subpoena from the House Judiciary Committee: “Got a subpoena from House Republicans. I’m still happy to sit in the light and answer all questions. But I will resist a ‘closed door’ thing because I’ve seen enough of their selective leaking and distortion. Let’s have a hearing and invite everyone to see.”
Now, it would take way too much space to mock the irony of Comey’s concerns about leaking and distortion. We know Comey’s top deputies were illegally leaking information to the press right up until the time he was fired. He also arranged for a friend to leak personal memos he wrote about his private interactions with the president to the press.
But here is the most galling part of Comey’s response: The man who once led the most powerful law enforcement agency in the world is threatening to defy a legally issued congressional subpoena unless the interview is conducted on his terms.
And the reason isn’t that Comey has nothing to hide—it’s that he has plenty to hide and he knows a public setting would provide him precisely the cover he needs.
He “Can’t Answer in an Open Setting”
During open testimony on Capitol Hill last year, Comey repeatedly invoked the defense, “it’s classified” as a way to avoid publicly disclosing crucial information about his agency’s conduct in 2016 and 2017. He dodged questions about the infamous Steele dossier, a thoroughly discredited political document produced by an opposition research firm that had been hired by the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee to dig up Russia-related dirt on Trump. Comey cited the dossier as key evidence on his October 2016 application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to obtain a warrant to spy on Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
But despite knowing the dossier was nothing more than political dirt—and knowing it was paid for by Trump’s presidential rivals—Comey refused to answer basic questions about it. Similarly, he refused to answer questions about the Page FISA warrant and Fusion GPS.
Here are a few exchanges between Comey and Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) in June 2017:
Burr: At the time of your departure from the FBI, was the FBI able to confirm any criminal allegations contained in the Steele document?
Comey: I don’t think that’s a question I can answer in an open setting because it goes into the details of the investigation.
Burr: When you read the dossier, what was your reaction, given that it was 100 percent directed at the president-elect?
Comey: Not a question I can answer in an open setting.
The FBI director rebuffed several questions during his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2017, one week before he was fired. Here’s an exchange between Comey and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.):
Graham: Was there a FISA warrant issued regarding Carter Page’s activity with the Russians?
Comey: I can’t answer that here.
In fact, the Washington Post had published an article the month before—sourced by anonymous, illegal leaks at the Justice Department—that the Justice Department had a FISA warrant on Page. At the time of Comey’s testimony, the FISA was still active; Rod Rosenstein would sign the final renewal on the application the following month.
Graham: Did you consider Carter Page an agent of the campaign?
Comey: Same answer. I can’t answer that here.
Under questioning by Senate Justice Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Comey refused to answer questions about Fusion GPS; the agency’s policy on paying a source that already was being paid by another firm for the same work (in 2016, both Fusion and the FBI were paying Steele, a British citizen, to find collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia); Comey’s knowledge about Fusion’s lobbying work on behalf of a Russian company; and several questions about the dossier.
What We Know Now—And What We Need to Know Still
But the public now knows the answers to the questions Comey would not answer. Thanks to the Nunes memo (which the FBI tried to prevent from being released in February), we know that Jim Comey presented political opposition research to a secret court to spy on the Trump campaign. We know Comey concealed from the court the fact that the DNC and Clinton campaign paid for the dossier. We know he also concealed this detail from Trump.
We know, too, that Comey’s FBI was paying Christopher Steele at the same time he was being paid by Fusion GPS. We know that Steele, an FBI asset, was meeting with American journalists right before the election to plant damaging stories in the press about the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to the Russians. We know that Comey used one of those articles as evidence in his FISA application.
We know that Fusion GPS was lobbying the Justice Department on behalf of a Russian company and was working with the same Russian lawyer who attended the Trump Tower meeting with Trump’s son and other campaign principals in June 2016. We know that Glenn Simpson, the owner of Fusion, met with Natalia Veselnitskya before and after the Trump Tower meeting.
We know that Fusion hired Nellie Ohr, the wife of Justice Department lawyer Bruce Ohr, in late 2015 to work on the same opposition research that Steele was manufacturing. We know that the Ohrs met with Steele in the summer of 2016 and that Steele was lobbying Ohr on behalf of his client, Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, to restore his U.S. travel privileges.
We know that Comey’s FBI used spies to infiltrate the Trump campaign. We know that he met with Attorney General Loretta Lynch as early as March 2016 to set the plan to spy on Trump’s presidential campaign in motion. We know that he opened a counterintelligence probe into the campaign in July 2016, and violated protocol by not notifying top Congressional leaders about the investigation. We know that top FBI officials were biased against Trump, and worked before and after the election to damage the president.
Here’s what else the public and congressional Republicans know: Comey is a shameless partisan with deep, personal animus toward the president. His interviews and post-firing tweets are evidence of his grudge against Trump and desire to take down his presidency.
But here is the most important thing we know: More than two years after James Comey opened an investigation into a presidential campaign, obtained a secret court’s approval to spy on at least one U.S. citizen associated with the campaign, hired spies to infiltrate the campaign, allowed his deputies to break the law by leaking classified information to the press, and admitted using a personal memo to set in motion a special counsel investigation into Trump-Russia “collusion,” not one person tied to the Trump campaign has been charged with a crime related to “collusion.”
Comey has much to answer for—including the biggest question of all: Why? Why did he put the country through this nightmare for more than two years when he knew the origins of the Trump-Russia election collusion plotline were built on lies?
Congress must compel him to answer, and then hold him accountable for the lives he damaged, the money he cost taxpayers, and the mayhem he unleashed on the American people and Donald Trump’s presidency.
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