One of the sidelines to the firing of FBI Director James Comey was the contents of the letter from President Trump notifying him of his dismissal:
While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.
This has led to a flurry of assertions that the “three separate occasions” is another Trump exaggeration.
That may not be the case.
Back in March, Comey met with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein. In that meeting, they discussed the never-ending Russia investigation. After that meeting Grassley sent this tweet:
FBI Dir Comey needs to be transparent + tell the public what he told me about whether he is or is not investigating @POTUS
— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) March 20, 2017
Needless to say, that didn’t happen and the Comey briefing highlighted the danger inherent in Comey’s decision to dither on this investigation for ten months and refuse to address the most egregious speculation on the subject. Here is Byron York:
“So potentially,” Blumenthal continued, “the president of the United States could be a target of your ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russian interference in our election, correct?”
“I just worry — I don’t want to answer that — that — that seems to be unfair speculation,” said Comey. “We will follow the evidence, we’ll try and find as much as we can and we’ll follow the evidence wherever it leads.”
Blumenthal did not succeed in squeezing Comey for information about the possibility the FBI is targeting Trump. But he did put the subject on the table. And Comey’s answers — non-committal, non-revealing — did not confirm or knock down Blumenthal’s speculation. To that extent, Blumenthal managed to throw out the suggestion that the FBI was targeting Trump himself.
Blumenthal’s tactics were so concerning that on Thursday, at a business meeting of the Judiciary Committee not devoted to any aspect of the Russia affair, Republican Chairman Charles Grassley and Democratic Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein both addressed the subject.
Grassley’s statement has since been posted in a press release titled “Grassley discusses Comey and Russia Investigation at Executive Business Meeting.” In it there is this:
On a different topic, Mr. Comey testified before the Judiciary Committee last week. Senator Blumenthal asked him whether the FBI had ruled anyone out as a potential target of the investigation of allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. In response, Mr. Comey stated: “Well, I haven’t said anything publicly about who we’ve opened investigations on. I briefed the Chair and Ranking on who those people are.”
Mr. Comey was asked if the FBI is investigating the President. He refused to answer. Mr. Comey said he didn’t want people to over-interpret his refusal, but that he wasn’t going to comment on anyone in particular. He thought it would put him on a slippery slope of having to answer who else is or is not under investigation. That could reveal who is being investigated.
I understand why he took that position, but I don’t agree – at least not when it comes to the President and senior government officials. The American people deserve to know if senior government officials are under active criminal or intelligence investigation.
Mr. Comey did brief Ranking Member Feinstein and me on who the targets of the various investigations are. It would not be appropriate for me to reveal those details before the professionals conducting the investigations are ready. So, I will not answer any questions about who are targets of the ongoing Russia investigations. But I will say this: Shortly after Director Comey briefed us, I tweeted that he should be transparent. I said he should tell the public what he told Senator Feinstein and me about whether the FBI is or is not investigating the President.
On Tuesday, the President’s letter said that Director Comey told him he was not under investigation. Senator Feinstein and I heard nothing that contradicted the President’s statement. Now Mr. Comey is no longer the FBI director. But the FBI should still follow my advice. It should confirm to the public whether it is or is not investigating the President. Because it has failed to make this clear, speculation has run rampant.
The intelligence community said that one of the Russians’ goals is to undermine the American public’s faith in our democratic institutions. Wild speculation that the FBI is targeting the President in a criminal or intelligence inquiry is not just irresponsible and unfounded. It provides aid and comfort to the Russians and their goal of undermining faith in our democracy.
In her oral response to Grassley’s statement, Dianne Feinstein said:
“Thanks very much Mr. Chairman. I very much appreciate what you said and it’s very accurate. We were briefed, and the nature of the briefing was a counterintelligence and criminal investigation that the FBI who is carrying out and more than that, I will not say either”
It is hard to see how, short of divulging information given to him in confidence, Grassley could be any more clear that the FBI is not investigating Trump. Given the stakes, it is difficult to understand why Comey would give private assurances that Trump was not under investigation and refuse to give those same assurances to the American people. Comey’s fall back on “standard procedure” rings hollow given the way he has operated over the last year. So one is left with three unflattering explanations. Comey has a political tin-ear. Comey is deliberately making mischief for Trump. Comey is bootstrapping the Russia probe into a tool to increase FBI resources by preventing that investigation from ever ending. Any of the three explanations is more than enough reason to drop kick him.