Comey defends Russian inquiry in Senate testimony

WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans on Wednesday sought to promote their efforts to rewrite the Trump-Russia investigation narrative before election day, using an audience with former FBI director James B. Comey to cast doubt on the entire inquiry. , highlighting problems with a narrower aspect of it.

Led by Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans spent hours immersing themselves in mistakes and omissions made by the FBI when it requested court permission to bug Trump’s former campaign advisor, Carter Page in 2016 and 2017. Republicans took advantage of this flawed process to renew their claims that Comey and his agents acted politically, ignoring an independent review that unmasked the notion of a plot against President Trump.

Mr. Comey, who testified by video from his home, rejected the Republicans’ conclusions and pointed to the conclusions of that review by Justice Department inspector general Michael E. Horowitz, who detailed the errors in requests for permission to spy on the Mr. Page, but concluded that there was no evidence that they resulted from political prejudices.

“Overall, it was done according to the book, it was appropriate and essential that it be done,” said Comey of the inquiry in Russia.

But Republicans took advantage of dubious information released a day earlier by the Trump administration to accuse Comey of ignoring what they portrayed as a conspiracy by Democrats to trick FBI investigators into targeting the Trump campaign first and then transforming the investigation in the trail campaign.

“I’m beginning to understand that there was a two-tier system here,” said Graham. “When it came to Trump, there were no rules, go ahead, ignore everything, lie if you need to, change documents. When it comes to Clinton, it seems to be a completely different pattern. ”

The hearing was Mr. Graham’s last move to undermine Russia’s inquiry. Working with Attorney General William P. Barr and John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, he revealed substandard records that put investigators in a sinister light, but which Democrats say are distorted selections.

Mr. Trump, who fired Mr. Comey in May 2017 after the FBI director refused to say publicly that the president was not under investigation for his ties to Russia, promoted the attacks, writing on twitter shortly after the hearing that Mr. Comey “should be arrested immediately!” to defend the investigation. Hours later, he added that Mr. Comey was “a disaster that betrayed and lied” and “should be tried for treason”.

Mr. Comey promptly admitted that the requirements were negligent and testified that he would not have signed them knowing what he does now.

“It’s embarrassing. It’s sloppy. I was speechless,” said Comey.

But he insisted that the wiretapping of Mr. Page, a relatively junior aide who had left the campaign before the FBI got a court order to hear him based on suspicions about his ties to Russia, was a “slice” of the greater effort to determine whether Trump and his team were conspiring with interference operations in Russia’s elections. And he angered the Republicans, saying repeatedly that he couldn’t remember the details of the case.

“With all due respect, Mr. Comey, you seem to know nothing about an investigation you conducted,” said an angry Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican.

The hearing was the committee’s third in recent months to scrutinize the investigation, and Graham plans to call former Comey deputy Andrew G. McCabe to testify next week.

Graham, who is engaged in his own struggle for unexpectedly fierce re-election, insisted that he would continue until “one of the most corrupt investigations in modern history” was exposed and the officials involved were “fired or sent to prison”. A former FBI lawyer pleaded guilty to falsifying a document used in preparing for a warrant application. He was sued as part of another ongoing review of the investigation, led by John H. Durham, a federal prosecutor appointed by Barr.

During the hearing, Mr. Graham released a letter from the Department of Justice, stating that an unidentified low-level attorney who had signed the warrant application now also repented and claimed that the FBI had concealed the main facts.

Republicans were most excited by the use of the FBI in seeking warrants for an unverified information dossier compiled by a former British spy, Christopher Steele. Steele’s work was financed, in part, by Democrats, and was based on information provided by a Russian source who, according to Republicans, could be spreading misinformation. The agents relied on the dossier in part to secure the court’s permission for clips on the page, although they shared some details with the court about its provenance.

But if Republicans hoped to use Comey to score political points, Democrats sought his help to support their criticisms of Trump and Barr.

Comey said he “had no idea what the hell” Barr meant by saying that the FBI did not have enough reason to start investigating the Trump campaign. He accused Mr. Barr of acting “at odds with the nature of the department” to stay out of the political fray.

“When the attorney general starts acting as the president’s personal lawyer, it threatens, and it is priceless,” said Comey.

The former director also took on the most direct complaint related to the investigation that Republicans made against former vice president Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential candidate.

Comey denounced a baseless claim made by Republicans – including Trump in the first presidential debate on Tuesday – that at a meeting in the Oval Office in the last days of the Obama administration, Biden presented the legal theory to sue Mr. Trump’s national security, Michael T. Flynn, who twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.

The Justice Department released handwritten FBI notes that Trump and his allies claim as supporting evidence. But former FBI officials say the Republicans are misrepresenting the notes and taking them out of context.

Comey, who attended the meeting, said Biden played no role in directing the investigation. “I would remember that because it would be highly inappropriate for a president or vice president to suggest a lawsuit or investigation by anyone – and it didn’t,” said Comey.

Graham spent much of the audience building his case around the unverified intelligence made public by Ratcliffe, in an apparent attempt to help Trump politically. The intelligence of years, rejected by other investigators, suggested that Russian intelligence officials had obtained information that Hillary Clinton approved a plan for her 2016 campaign to raise concerns about Trump’s ties to Russia.

Comey said he had no knowledge of intelligence. “I read Mr. Ratcliffe’s letter, which frankly I can’t understand,” he said.