REALCLEARINVESTIGATIONS: Comey’s Under DoJ Scrutiny for Leading Probe While Misleading Trump.
It is one of the most enduring and consequential mysteries of the Trump-Russia investigation: Why did former FBI Director James Comey refuse to say publicly what he was telling President Trump in private — that Trump was not the target of an ongoing probe?
That refusal ignited a chain of events that has consumed Washington for more than two years – including Comey’s firing by Trump, the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and ongoing claims that Trump obstructed justice.
Now an answer is emerging. Sources tell RealClearInvestigations that Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz will soon file a report with evidence indicating that Comey was misleading the president. Even as he repeatedly assured Trump that he was not a target, the former director was secretly trying to build a conspiracy case against the president, while at times acting as an investigative agent.
Two U.S. officials briefed on the inspector general’s investigation of possible FBI misconduct said Comey was essentially “running a covert operation against” the president, starting with a private “defensive briefing” he gave Trump just weeks before his inauguration. They said Horowitz has examined high-level FBI text messages and other communications indicating Comey was actually conducting a “counterintelligence assessment” of Trump during that January 2017 meeting in New York.
In addition to adding notes of his meetings and phone calls with Trump to the official FBI case file, Comey had an agent inside the White House who reported back to FBI headquarters about Trump and his aides, according to other officials familiar with the matter.
Although Comey took many actions on his own, he was not working in isolation. One focus of Horowitz’s inquiry is the private Jan. 6, 2017, briefing Comey gave the president-elect in New York about material in the Democratic-commissioned dossier compiled by ex-British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Reports of that meeting were used days later by BuzzFeed, CNN and other outlets as a news hook for reporting on the dossier’s lascivious and unsubstantiated claims.
Comey’s meeting with Trump took place one day after the FBI director met in the Oval Office with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to discuss how to brief Trump — a meeting attended by National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and National Intelligence Director James Clapper, who would soon go to work for CNN.
In his recently published memoir, “A Higher Loyalty,” Comey denied having “a counterintelligence case file open on [Trump],” though he qualified the denial by adding this was true only in the “literal” sense. He also twice denied investigating Trump, under oath, in congressional testimony.
Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, who has written extensively on the Trump-Russia probe as a columnist for National Review, said that just because the president’s name was not put on a file or a surveillance warrant does not mean the Comey FBI was not investigating him. “They were hoping to surveil him incidentally, and they were trying to make a case on him,” McCarthy said. “The real reason Comey did not want to repeat publicly the assurances he made to Trump privately is that these assurances were misleading. The FBI strung Trump along, telling him he was not a suspect while structuring the investigation in accordance with the reality that Trump was the main subject.”
But, former FBI counterintelligence agent and lawyer Mark Wauck said, the FBI lacked legal grounds to treat Trump as a suspect. “They had no probable cause against Trump himself for ‘collusion’ or espionage,” he said. “They were scrambling to come up with anything to hang a hat on, but had found nothing.”
What remains unclear is why Comey would take such extraordinary steps against a sitting president. The Mueller report concluded there was no basis for the Trump-Russia collusion conspiracy theories. Comey himself was an early skeptic of the Steele dossier — the opposition research memos paid for by Hillary Clinton’s campaign that were the road map of collusion theories – which he dismissed as “salacious and unverified.”
Republicans including House Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Devin Nunes believe that Comey, like his top counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok, was attempting to “stop” the Trump presidency for political reasons.
“You have the culmination of the ultimate spying, where you have the FBI director spying on the president, taking notes [and] illegally leaking those notes of classified information” to anti-Trump media, Nunes said in a recent interview. His panel is one of two House committees scheduled to hear testimony from Mueller on Wednesday.
The IG’s report, which is expected to be released in early September, will shine new light on the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, given that Horowitz and his team have examined more than 1 million records and conducted more than 100 interviews, including sit-downs with Comey and other current and former FBI and Justice Department personnel. The period covering Comey’s activities is believed to run from early January 2017 to early May 2017, when Comey was fired and his deputy Andrew McCabe, as the acting FBI director, formally opened full counterintelligence and obstruction investigations of the president.
Although Horowitz has focused primarily on whether the FBI misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in its applications for surveillance warrants against former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, he has pursued other related angles, including whether Comey personally misled the president and leaked classified FBI information about him, the officials said.
An attorney for Comey declined to answer emailed questions regarding the Horowitz investigation. The following account, drawn from officials briefed on the IG’s work and other sources, provides details of Comey’s actions between Trump’s election and his dismissal by the president.
Comey had nine conversations with Trump between January and May 2017, some in the White House. Almost every time, he went back to FBI headquarters and wrote up a memo documenting not only his version of the conversation, but also a complete update of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, the FBI’s code name for the Trump-Russia probe it launched in July 2016.
Some of the notes, which Comey locked in a safe, cited classified sources and methods, including the identities of witnesses and informants along with the code names their FBI handlers assigned to them, according to federal court papers. They also document the assistance provided by foreign intelligence agencies. They are said to be a map not only of his agents’ investigative activity relating to Crossfire Hurricane, but also his own dealings with the president.