WASHINGTON ― FBI Director James Comey refused to tell senators on Tuesday whether his agency is looking into reported contact between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government, saying he could not comment on such an inquiry.
“I would never comment on investigations, whether we have one or not, in an open forum like this,” Comey told Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
The problem for Comey, however, is that he has commented on open investigations. He did so just days before the 2016 election, when he told Congress that the FBI was looking into emails found on a computer belonging to former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) that might or might not be pertinent to the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server and handling of classified information while she ran the State Department.
The announcement caused a firestorm and cast an ethical cloud over Clinton that never fully evaporated, even when the FBI cleared her ― again ― a few days later. It was an unprecedented step into the political process by the FBI that generated intense criticism from both sides.
And Comey’s decisions before the election have now put him in a bind as he tries to avoid commenting on other political cases.
“Jim Comey’s answer to Senator Wyden on Tuesday was actually the right answer,” former Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said. “That answer has been given countless times over the years by scores of federal law enforcement officials sitting in the same witness chair as Comey. The problem is, Comey has no credibility to fall back on protocol anymore because he so egregiously deviated from it in his handling of Hillary Clinton’s email investigation.”
That point wasn’t lost on senators Tuesday.
“The irony of your making that statement here I cannot avoid, but I’ll move on,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said she understood why Comey couldn’t normally comment on ongoing investigations, but argued that he had set a new standard for when he should.
“It seems that despite past precedent, the new standard that was created over the summer and fall regarding the investigation into Secretary Clinton’s email server was that there was a unique public interest in the transparency of that issue,” Harris said. “Particularly given the findings of your report, I’m not sure I can think of an issue of more serious public interest than this one. This committee needs to understand what the FBI does and does not know about campaign communications with Russia.”
Last July, Comey took the unusual step of publicly delving into detail about why the FBI was recommending no charges against Clinton in her use of a private email server as secretary of state.
“I am going to include more detail about our process than I ordinarily would,” Comey said then, “because I think the American people deserve those details in a case of intense public interest.”
“The bitter mockery that greeted his response to Senator Wyden is a perfect example of how Comey’s actions have compromised not only his own reputation, but that of the whole Bureau,” Fallon said this week.
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