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Republicans tight-lipped after day-long Comey interview

POLITICO logo POLITICO 6 days ago By Kyle Cheney
FBI Director James Comey testifies before a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 14, 2016. © REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo FBI Director James Comey testifies before a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 14, 2016.

Republicans spent much of Friday trying to wring new information from former FBI Director James Comey during an all-day deposition — but identified little new ground after six hours of free-wheeling inquiries.

GOP members peppered Comey with queries about the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation, the bureau’s surveillance of a Trump campaign aide and allegations of anti-Trump bias among senior officials.

But emerging from the meeting, lawmakers were tight-lipped about what answers, if any, they got. Some, like Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), came out frustrated, claiming efforts to pry loose new information were sidelined by a lawyer who intervened to block Comey's answers on matters “at the core” of their inquiry.

Democrats disputed this characterization, describing a free-flowing interview with few obstacles. They claimed the session yielded little unknown info and lots of repetitive questioning. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) said one of the only areas of new ground came in response to his questions about allegations of leaking by agents in the FBI’s Southern District of New York office, which some Democrats accuse of tipping off Trump allies to inner workings of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.

Comey may return to Capitol Hill either Tuesday or Wednesday to answer even more questions.

The scene was a far cry from the last time Comey faced lawmakers, when the recently fired director came to Capitol Hill to tell a sordid tale about President Donald Trump haranguing him to "lift the cloud" of the bureau's deepening Russia investigation.

Since that June 2017 hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey has memorialized his tale in a book eviscerating Trump, traveled the country condemning Trump’s character and taken Twitter potshots at the president. Trump has responded in kind, lambasting Comey 80 times on Twitter and calling for his jailing.

Comey’s return to Capitol Hill Friday was his first in 18 months, and this time he faced some of Trump’s closest allies out of the camera's glare. Despite Comey's pleas for a public hearing, House lawmakers required the ousted FBI chief to appear behind closed doors, ensuring the first version of events will be told through the lens of self-interested participants as they exit. A transcript of his testimony — which was before the House oversight and judiciary committees — is expected to be released sometime on Saturday.

On his way to the hearing, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a top Trump ally, brandished a thick packet that he said included 14 pages of questions for Comey. Another close Trump supporter involved in the deposition, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), said he had a notebook full of questions for Comey.

But later, Issa came out complaining about the DOJ and FBI attorneys. He said the agencies will have to provide more detailed rationales for their intervention and arrange to have Comey return to provide more detailed answers.

Democrats exiting the meeting strongly disputed the characterization that Comey was unable to answer lawmakers' questions.

Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), a member of the Oversight Committee, said FBI attorneys intervened just a handful of times and that Comey was generally forthcoming. He called the interview a “waste of time” and said Republicans focused their questions on perceived anti-Trump bias by a handful of officials involved in the probes of Trump and Clinton.

Lawmakers wrapped up their interview shortly after 4 p.m., shortly before two deadlines for Mueller to release potentially headline-grabbing court documents. By the end of the day, the special counsel will file two memos detailing cooperation between Mueller and Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen.

House Republicans are eager to try and nail down Comey on several issues before they cede their majority to the Democrats after the new year.

Republican leaders on the oversight and judiciary committees, which have been conducting a joint probe into possible FBI malfeasance, have questioned Comey's honesty about his interactions with Trump and his decision to not recommend criminal charges against Clinton for her handling of classified information. They also are trying to press Comey on a court-approved surveillance warrant for former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.

Democrats, meanwhile, have long felt aggrieved at how Republicans have acted during their FBI investigation.

“We have the right witness with the wrong questions. This is just a big fishing expedition,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, one of the Democrats on the panel interviewing Comey Friday, in a phone interview. “We've got to stop wasting time on Hillary Clinton's emails.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who is expected to chair the Judiciary Committee in January, called the interview a “fishing expedition” that would end when Democrats take over.

The world has changed dramatically since Comey's last congressional hearing, which took place just three weeks after special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to oversee the Russia investigation and whether Trump or his associates cooperated with the Kremlin's plot to disrupt the 2016 election.

Since then, Trump has waged war on the FBI under Comey's leadership, accusing him and top officials of harboring anti-Trump sentiments that led them to prioritize the Russia probe over questions about Clinton's use of a private email server. House Republicans have hauled in top FBI officials, aired private text messages from FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page excoriating Trump and railed about the bureau's handling of a salacious intelligence dossier on Trump compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele.

Trump’s congressional allies have particularly focused on the Steele dossier, arguing that it was used as the primary basis to surveil Page and launch a full-scale investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.

From the White House, Trump has cheered on these efforts and publicly pressured the Justice Department to fire a number of officials involved in these decisions. The president has also suggested he might order the declassification of the typically sensitive materials surrounding the Page surveillance warrant but has held off for now, instead threatening to deploy the information against Democrats if they investigate him and his administration next year.

Trump launched a fresh attack on Comey and Mueller Friday morning, suggesting their relationship is a conflict for the special counsel.

“Robert Mueller and Leakin’ Lyin’ James Comey are Best Friends, just one of many Mueller Conflicts of Interest,” Trump tweeted, though Comey has denied a close relationship with Mueller, his predecessor as FBI director.

Trump has increasingly lashed out at Mueller as the Russia election meddling investigator has closed in on the president's inner circle. He secured the conviction of Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. And several other former Trump aides have pleaded guilty to various charges, including ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn, longtime Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen and two Trump campaign aides. The special counsel also indicted more than two dozen Russians for election-related hacking and a well-orchestrated propaganda effort to sow discord.

The FBI has faced its own turmoil after Comey’s departure. Comey's second-in-command, Andrew McCabe, a favorite punching bag for Trump, was fired in March just hours before he was set to retire. To justify the firing, DOJ leaders pointed to an internal watchdog report that accused McCabe of lying to investigators about media contacts. Comey's closest aides have also left one by one, including chief of staff Jim Rybicki, chief counsel Jim Baker, Strzok and Page.

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