WASHINGTON (CN) — Former FBI Director James Comey took responsibility Wednesday for errors in an investigation into links between Russia and President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign – mistakes Republicans claim expose anti-Trump bias within the U.S. intelligence community – but told a Senate committee the probe was overall done “by the book.”
“I would say in the main it was done by the book. It was appropriate and it was essential that it be done,” Comey said, testifying by videoconference.
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing marked the third in a lineup of testimonies as part of a GOP-led investigation into the origins of Crossfire Hurricane, an FBI probe into Trump campaign officials later passed to former special counsel Robert Mueller.
Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., relied on the proceeding as a platform to espouse claims that deep-seated efforts within the FBI sought to undermine Trump’s race to the White House.
Comey, who the president fired in 2017, repeatedly sidestepped Graham and fellow Republicans’ characterizations of the early investigation into Trump’s campaign, saying he did not accept their characterizations.
Instead, the former FBI director leaned heavily on Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s finding last year that Crossfire Hurricane was not politically influenced.
Comey also weighed in on the Justice Department’s push under Attorney General William Barr to abandon the prosecution of Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, calling the development “deeply concerning.”
The former FBI director testified to being overall proud of the work of agents on Crossfire Hurricane but recognized that “parts of it are concerning.”
As part of an internal probe, the inspector general uncovered 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” across four FBI applications for warrants to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Latching onto Comey recognizing the FBI’s disclosure of information to the FISA court was inadequate, Graham said the bureau’s actions were “criminally inadequate.”
So far, the Justice Department has brought only one criminal case against an individual involved in Crossfire Hurricane. Former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty last month to altering an email to say that Page, who was previously a CIA source, was “not a source.”
The errors are “unnerving” and have “shaken confidence” in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Graham added, referring to the federal provisions relied on by the FBI to monitor individuals suspected of being national security threats.
He asked Comey if the ex-FBI director would sign off on the Page warrant applications now knowing of the errors, a question the GOP senator posed in two prior hearings on the origins of Crossfire Hurricane to former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in August and former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in June.
Like the prior witnesses, Comey said he would not have signed off on the applications to the FISA court knowing what he knows now.
“No, not without a much fuller discussion of how they were thinking about their disclosure obligations to the court,” he said.
Republicans lambasted Comey for his even-tempered responses, questioning his remorse for the agency’s failings that have drawn considerable alarm from Congress and the public.
Comey took responsibility, though often pointed out he signed a certification related to the warrant application and not the original application or subsequent applications to renew the warrant themselves.
He also took issue with the GOP senators’ focus on the Page warrant and their confusion over Comey not being briefed on the use of the so-called Steele dossier to support the FISA court applications, calling it a “slice” of a very important investigation.
“This reflects on me entirely and it’s my responsibility. That’s a separate question from whether I was briefed on a particular aspect of a particular investigation. But no, I’m not looking to shirk responsibility. The director’s responsible,” Comey said.
Graham geared the hearing’s focus closely toward the Steele dossier, which included claims of sexcapades by Trump in Moscow, arguing FBI officials continued to rely on the document as reason to surveil the Trump campaign even after it was proven to be hearsay.
Saying Russia-trained attorney Igor Danchenko provided former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele with information that was nothing more than “bar talk,” the chairman called Danchenko a Russian agent and questioned Comey’s ignorance on the individual identified by the CIA as a primary sub-source for the now-infamous dossier.
“It’s not remotely possible to me that the case falls apart and nobody tells anybody at the top,” Graham said.
Responding to a question from Senator Chris Coons, D-Del., Comey said the dossier in no way influenced the decision to open the investigation into Trump’s campaign.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sought to reinforce the validity of the probe, relying on recent findings from the Senate Intelligence Committee that the president’s now-convicted former campaign chairman posed “a grave counterintelligence threat.”
Paul Manafort shared sensitive internal polling data and campaign strategies with Konstantin Kilimnik, identified in the bipartisan report in August as a Russian intelligence officer.
Comey agreed Manafort met the definition of a counterintelligence threat. He said the former Trump official was in a position to supply information to a foreign adversary while “occupying a role in the heart of American democracy: running a campaign.”
As for the warrant application errors, Comey defended the FBI’s process, saying that at the time officials trusted the multi-step oversight process.
“I think all of us, me in particular, took comfort in the complexity of the layers and layers of review and oversight associated with FISA,” he said.
Recommending the agency return to a model closer to that required to obtain a warrant for criminal wiretaps – “where a single agent and a single lawyer are responsible, and they feel the squeeze of signing their name” – Comey said responsibility has been diffused rather than concentrated on individual officials within the FBI.
Senator Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said that answer was insufficient and that agents under Comey acted somewhere along a scale of sloppy to malicious.
“There was a whole hell of a lot of people at the top of your organization who didn’t ever actually think they were going to be held accountable,” Sasse said.
Taking a volley of questions from Republicans on the Flynn prosecution, Comey testified he did not recall saying in a White House meeting on Jan. 5, 2017, with President Barack Obama and other officials that Flynn’s calls with the then-Russian ambassador “appear legit.”
“If I used that I would have meant authentic and not fabricated. I wouldn’t have meant appropriate. But I don’t remember using that word,” he said.
Democrats, meanwhile, questioned why the Senate Judiciary Committee was not looking into reports from inside the Justice Department and by the amicus curiae appointed in Flynn’s case that Barr is working to protect the president’s personal friends and allies.
Trump famously told Comey “I hope you can let this go” in a White House dinner, referring to the investigation into Flynn in 2017. The former FBI director said unequivocally Wednesday that he believes Flynn lied to the FBI, a crime Flynn himself twice pleaded guilty to before seeking to withdraw the plea.
Responding to a question on the admission by Flynn’s lawyer in federal court Tuesday that she directly briefed the president in recent weeks on the case, Comey warned: “This guy’s getting treated in a way that nobody’s ever been treated before.”