james comey

Comey testimony: “I don’t think I can talk about that in an open setting”

There are lots of highlights of the James Comey testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.

But what I am interested in were the questions he didn’t answer.

 

The winner, in terms of clear questions, was former Democratic California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Silence in this case suggests wrong-doing.

  • Are you aware of any meetings between the Trump administration officials and Russian officials during the campaign that have not been acknowledged by those officials in the White House?
  • Are you aware of any questions by Trump campaign officials or associates of the campaign to hide their communications with Russia officials through encrypted means?
  • In the course of the FBI’s investigation, did you ever come across anything that suggested that communication, records, documents or other evidence had been destroyed?
  • And are you aware of any potential efforts to conceal between campaign officials and Russian officials?
  • As the attorney general recused himself from the investigation, do you believe it was appropriate for him to be involved in the firing of the chief investigator of that case that had Russia interference?

The winner in terms of creating soundbites for conservative media was Republican Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

  • Do you believe Trump colluded with Russia?
  • Did you or any FBI agent ever sense that Mr. Flynn attempted to deceive you, or made false statements to an FBI agent?
  • Did you ever come close to closing investigation on Mr. Flynn?

 

Other questions that stand alone:

  • Heinrich (D-NM): Do you find it odd that the president seemed unconcerned by Russia’s actions in our election?
  • King (D-ME):
    • Does that mean that the [president’s] dossier is not being reviewed or investigated or followed up on in any way?
    • Is it not true that Mr. Flynn was and is a central figure in this entire investigation of the relationship between the Trump campaign and the Russians?
    • Certainly, Mr. Flynn was part of the so-called Russian investigation? Can you answer that question?
    • What do you know about the Russian bank, VEB?
  • McCain (R-AZ): Are you aware of anything that would lead you to believe that information exists that could coerce members of the administration or blackmail the administration?

 

And the long-winded ones:

  • Burr (R-NC): Multiple questions about the January Christopher Steele story
  • Cotton (R-AR), Heinrich (D-NM), and Riech (R-ID): Questions about the 14 February NY Times story regarding intercepted communications
  • Cotton (R-AR): Flynn’s pre-auguration conversations with Russia
  • Wyden (D-OR): Questions about AG Sessions (D)

 

Transcript excerpts

And here they are, from the NY Times (I subscribe) transcript. Also included: “I can’t answer.” Remember, Comey is speaking under oath.

 

Richard Burr (R-NC), Chair

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: Mr. Chairman, I don’t think that’s a question I can answer in an open setting because it goes into the details of the investigation…

The “Steele document” is the expose from former MI6 spy Christopher Steele that suggested Donald Trump might be susceptible to Russian blackmail. It hit the press in January prior to the inauguration.

COMEY: Yes. If the FBI receives a credible allegation that there is some effort to co-opt, coerce, direct, employ covertly an American on behalf of the foreign power, that’s the basis on which a counterintelligence investigation is opened.

BURR: And 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, Mr. Chairman.

Comey’s second refusal was also related to the Steele expose.

James Risch (R-ID)

RISCH: On — I remember, you — you talked with us shortly after February 14th, when the New York Times wrote an article that suggested that the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians. You remember reading that article when it first came out?

COMEY: I do. It was about allegedly extensive electronic surveillance…

RISCH: Correct.

(CROSSTALK)

COMEY: … communications. Yes, sir.

RISCH: And — and that upset you to the point where you actually went out and surveyed the intelligence community to see whether — whether you were missing something in that. Is that correct?

COMEY: That’s correct. I want to be careful in open setting. But…

RISCH: I — I’m — I’m not going to any further than that with it.

COMEY: OK.

On 14 February, the New York Times published this story: Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence. It credited “four current and former American officials.”

Also on 14 February (coincidence?), Trump invited Comey to dinner.

This was Comey’s third refusal to answer or continue answering.

Ron Wyden (D-OR)

WYDEN: Let me turn to the Attorney General. In your statement, you said that you and the FBI leadership team decided not to discuss the president’s actions with Attorney General Sessions, even though he had not recused himself.

What was it about the Attorney General’s own interactions with the Russians, or his behavior with regard to the investigation, that would have led the entire leadership of the FBI to make this decision?

COMEY: Our judgment, as I recall, was that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.

And so we were — we were convinced — and, in fact, I think we had already heard that the career people were recommending that he recuse himself — that he was not going to be in contact with Russia- related matters much longer, and that turned out to be the case.

WYDEN: How would you characterize Attorney General Sessions’s adherence to his recusal? In particular, with regard to his involvement in your firing, which the president has acknowledged was because of the Russian investigation.

COMEY: That’s a question I can’t answer. I think it is a reasonable question. If, as the president said, I was fired because of the Russia investigation, why was the attorney general involved in that chain? I don’t know. So I don’t have an answer for the question.

AG Sessions was part of the Trump campaign apparatus.

Martin Heinrich (D-NM)

HEINRICH: Do you find it odd that the president seemed unconcerned by Russia’s actions in our election?

COMEY: I can’t answer that because I don’t know what other conversations he had with other advisers or other intelligence community leaders. I just don’t know sitting here…

HEINRICH: So there are reports that the incoming Trump administration, either during the transition and/or after the inauguration, attempted to set up a sort of back-door communication channel with the Russian government using their infrastructure, their devices or facilities.

What would be the risks particularly for a transition, someone not actually in the office of the president yet, to setting up unauthorized channels with a hostile foreign government, especially if they were to evade our own American intelligence services?

COMEY: I’m not going to comment on whether that happened in an open setting. But the risk is — primary risk is obvious: you spare the Russians the cost and effort of having to break into our communications channels by using theirs.

And so you make it a whole lot easier for them to capture all of your conversations, and then to use those to the benefit of Russia against the United States.

The claim Heinrich references relates to the alleged request for a secret communications channel that Jared Kushner and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn made to Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in Trump Tower.

Angus King (D-ME)

KING: Thank you.

With regard to the question of him being under personal — personally under investigation, does that mean that the dossier is not being reviewed or investigated or followed up on in any way?

COMEY: I obviously can’t — I can’t comment either way. I can’t talk in an open setting about the investigation as it was when I was the head of the FBI. And obviously it’s — it’s Director Mueller’s — Bob Mueller’s responsibility now, so I just — I don’t know.

Republicans asked several times if Comey had told Trump that he was not personally under investigation.

KING: Now, on the Flynn investigation, is it not true that Mr. Flynn was and is a central figure in this entire investigation of the relationship between the Trump campaign and the Russians?

COMEY: I can’t answer that in an open setting, sir.

KING: Certainly, Mr. Flynn was part of the so-called Russian investigation? Can you answer that question?

COMEY: I have to give you the same answer.

King is unable to score points for liberal pundits.

KING: I was just going to quote that. In 1170, December 29, Henry II said, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” and then, the next day, he was killed — Thomas Becket. That’s exactly the same situation. You’re — we’re thinking along the same lines.

Several other questions, and these are a little bit more detailed. What do you know about the Russian bank, VEB?

COMEY: Nothing that I can talk about in an open setting. I mean, I know it…

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Well, that takes care of my next three questions.

COMEY: I know it exists. Yes, sir.

Tom Cotton (R-AR)

COTTON: Let’s turn our attention to the underlying activity at issue here: Russia’s hacking into those e-mails and releasing them, and the allegations of collusion. Do you believe Donald Trump colluded with Russia?

COMEY: That’s a question I don’t think I should answer in an open setting. As I said, that — we didn’t — that (ph) when I left, we did not have an investigation focused on President Trump. But that’s a question that’ll be answered by the investigation, I think.

Blunt and to the point; Cotton is asking Comey if he’s willing to conjecture, knowing that the answer will be “no.” Provides good headlines/talking points for conservative media.

COTTON: Let me turn to a couple of statements by one of my colleagues, Senator Feinstein [regarding collusion between Trump associates and Russia]…

COMEY: I don’t doubt that Senator Feinstein was saying what — what she understood. I just don’t want to go down that path, first of all, because I’m not in the government anymore, and answering in the negative, I just worry, leads me deeper and deeper into talking about the investigation in an open setting…

COTTON: Do you have — at the time the story [referenced above, NYT on 14 February] was published, any indication of any contact between Trump people and Russians, intelligence officers, other government officials or close associates of the Russian government?

COMEY: That’s one I can’t answer sitting here

COTTON: Would it be improper for an incoming national security adviser to have a conversation with a foreign ambassador?

COMEY: In my — in my experience, no.

COTTON: But you can’t confirm or deny that the conversation happened, and we would need to know the contents of that conversation to know if it was, in fact, improper?

COMEY: Yeah, I don’t think I can talk about that in an open setting. And again, I’ve been out of government, now, a month, so I don’t — I also don’t want to talk about things when it’s now somebody’s — else’s responsibility. But maybe in the — in the classified setting, we can talk more about that.

Cotton’s questions are focusing on pre-augural allegations. Very strategic for headlines.

COTTON: You stated earlier that there wasn’t an open investigation of Mr. Flynn in (ph) the FBI. Did you or any FBI agent ever sense that Mr. Flynn attempted to deceive you, or made false statements to an FBI agent?

COMEY: I don’t want to go too far. That was the subject of the criminal inquiry.

COTTON: Did you ever come close to closing investigation on Mr. Flynn?

COMEY: I don’t think I can talk about that in an open setting, either.

Kamala Harris (D-CA)

HARRIS: I have a series of questions to ask you, and — and they’re going to start with, are you aware of any meetings between the Trump administration officials and Russian officials during the campaign that have not been acknowledged by those officials in the White House?

COMEY: That’s not a — even if I remember clearly, that’s a not a question I can answer in an open setting.

HARRIS: Are you aware of any questions by Trump campaign officials or associates of the campaign to hide their communications with Russia officials through encrypted means?

COMEY: I have to give you the same answer.

HARRIS: In the course of the FBI’s investigation did you ever come across anything that suggested that communication, records, documents or other evidence had been destroyed?

COMEY: I think I’ve got to give you the same answer because it would touch on investigative matters.

HARRIS: And are you a wear of any potential efforts to conceal between campaign officials and Russian officials?

COMEY: I have to give you the same answer…

HARRIS: And the attorney general recused himself from the investigation, do you believe it was appropriate for him to be involved in the firing of the chief investigator of that case that had Russia interference?

COMEY: It’s something that I can’t answer sitting here. It’s a reasonable question. It would depend on a lot of things I don’t know, like did he know, what was he told, did he realize the investigation, things like that. I just don’t know the answer.

John McCain (R-AZ), ex officio member

McCAIN: Are you aware of anything that would lead you to believe that information exists that could coerce members of the administration or blackmail the administration?

COMEY: That’s not a question I can answer, senator.

 

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