'A cloud of doubt hangs over the FBI's objectivity': Senate grills FBI Director James Comey on Clinton and Russia probes

The Senate Judiciary Committee grilled FBI Director James Comey on Wednesday about
his handling of the investigations into Hillary Clinton’s email server and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the committee’s chairman, used his opening statement to assert that there is still no proof that any collusion occurred between President Donald Trump’s campaign team and Russian officials, and that “all this speculation about collusion” is coming from the explosive but unverified Trump-Russia dossier that is “spinning wild conspiracy theories.”

“The public needs to know what role the dossier has played, and where it came from,” Grassley said. “And whether there was anything improper going on between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or whether these allegations are just a partisan smear campaign that manipulated our government into chasing a conspiracy theory.”

Grassley then pivoted to Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server, questioning why he did not recommend that criminal charges be brought against her and alleging that “a cloud of doubt hangs over the FBI’s objectivity.”

Later, Grassley grilled Comey on leaks from the intelligence community to the press about the FBI’s probe into Trump’s Russia ties. The chairman asked Comey if he had ever been an “anonymous source,” or authorised anyone at the bureau to be an anonymous source, to news outlets relating to stories about Trump and Russia. Comey replied that he had not.

“Is there any investigation into the leaks of classified information related to Mr. Trump and his associates?” Grassley asked.

Comey replied that “where there is a leak of classified information, the FBI makes a referral to the Justice Department” regarding whether to open an investigation. But he said he would not confirm whether such an investigation has been opened because he has not been authorised to do so.

Grassley also asked Comey about an email the FBI had found that was reportedly sent from a Democratic operative assuring the Clinton campaign that then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch would not investigate her email server too aggressively. Comey declined to comment on the email, citing restrictions on disclosing classified information in a public setting.

Democrats, meanwhile, argued that questions about the FBI’s objectivity came not from its conclusion that she should not be charged with a crime, but from Comey’s decision to publicly revisit the email investigation 11 days before the election. The bureau did not disclose, however, the investigation that it had opened into Trump and his associates’ ties to Russia three months earlier.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said that “before voters went to the polls, they had been inundated” with press coverage and statements from Comey about the Clinton email investigation. Comey announced he would revisit the probe “unprompted, and without knowing whether a single email” found by the FBI on former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s laptop “warranted a new investigation.”

But the FBI “was noticeably silent about the investigation into the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the US election,” she added, and “summarily refused to even acknowledge the existence of any investigation.”

“It’s still very unclear why the FBI’s treatment of these two investigations was so dramatically different,” Feinstein said. “With the Clinton email investigation, its’ been said that ‘exceptional circumstances’ … required public comment from the FBI. However, I can’t imagine how an unprecedented, big, bold, hacking interference in our election by the Russian government did not also present exceptional circumstances.”

Comey then gave a lengthy explanation for his decision, which he said was a choice between a “really bad” option to disclose the re-opened investigation, and a “catastrophic” option to conceal it from Congress:

“On October 27, the team that had finished its investigation into Clinton’s email server asked to meet with me. What they could see from the meta data that they found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop is that their were thousands of new emails, including what might be the missing emails from her Verizon Blackberry. So I authorised them to seek a search warrant, and then I faced a choice. I sat there that morning and I could not see a door labelled ‘no action here.’ There were two doors: One was labelled ‘speak,’ the other was labelled ‘conceal.’ Having repeatedly told this Congress that there’s nothing there — to restart and potentially find emails and not speak about it would require concealment. So, to speak would be REALLY bad. But concealment in my view, would have been catastrophic. Choosing between ‘really bad’ and ‘catastrophic,’ I told my team we had to tell Congress. They worked night after night and found thousands of new emails that included classified information…but we ultimately found nothing that changed our view about [Clinton’s] intent. It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we had some kind of impact on the election. But tell me, what you would do in that position? Would you speak, or would you conceal? In hindsight, I would make the same decision. I would not conceal that from Congress.”

This is a developing post.

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