WASHINGTON – Republican lawmakers on Wednesday confronted former FBI Director James Comey about his oversight of the Trump-Russia investigation during a politically charged hearing that focused attention on problems with the probe that have become a rallying cry for President Donald Trump's supporters.
Comey, making his first appearance before Congress since a harshly critical inspector general report on the investigation, acknowledged under questioning that the FBI's process for conducting surveillance on a former Trump campaign adviser was “sloppy” and “embarrassing." He said he would not have certified the surveillance had he known then what he knows now about applications the FBI submitted in 2016 and 2017 to eavesdrop on the aide, Carter Page.
The questioning of Comey, conducted with the election just weeks away, underscores the extent to which the FBI’s investigation four years ago into potential coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia remains front and center in the minds of Republican lawmakers, who see an opening to rally support for the president and cast him as the victim of biased law enforcement. The hearing was part of a review of the Russia probe by the GOP-led Senate Judiciary Committee.
Though Comey acknowledged the FBI’s shortcomings in the surveillance of Page, he also described that aspect of the probe as a “slice” of the broader Russia investigation, which he defended as legitimate and valid.
But those answers, including Comey's repeated assertions that he had been unaware at the time of the extent of problems, frustrated Republicans who point to the surveillance flaws to try to discredit the overall Russia investigation.
A Justice Department inspector general report identified errors and omissions in each of the four applications that the FBI submitted to obtain warrants to surveil Page, who was never charged with any wrongdoing. The FBI relied in part on Democratic-funded research in applying for those warrants. The inspector general report, and documents released in recent months, have raised questions about the reliability of that research.
The FBI relied on that documentation “over and over and over” again even though it was “fundamentally unsound,” said the Judiciary Committee chairman, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.
“What do we do? We just say, ‘Well, that was bad, that’s the way it goes?’ Does anybody get fired? Does anybody go to jail?” Graham said. "To my Democratic friends, if it happened to us, it can happen to you.”
Comey was fired by Trump in May 2017 but has remained a prominent and complicated character for Republicans and Democrats alike. Republicans have joined Trump in heaping scorn on Comey, but Democrats have not embraced him either, angered by his public statements made during the Hillary Clinton email case that they believe contributed to her loss.
Democrats lamented the backward-looking nature of Wednesday's hearing, saying the FBI had good reason to investigate contacts between Trump associates and Russia and that the committee's time could be better spent on other matters.
“Most people think we should be talking about other things, except maybe President Trump,” said Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
Comey defended the investigation, which was opened after a campaign adviser boasted that he had heard Russia had damaging information about Clinton. The probe examined multiple contacts between Russians and Trump associates during the 2016 campaign. Comey noted that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation resulted in criminal charges against dozens of people.
“In the main, it was done by the book. It was appropriate, and it was essential that it be done,” Comey said.
He later added: “The overall investigation was very important. The Page slice of it? Far less given the scope.”
But Comey, the latest high-profile former official from the FBI or Justice Department to testify in Graham's investigation, acknowledged “embarrassing” problems in the handling of surveillance applications. He said had he known then about the problems, he would not have certified the surveillance “without a much fuller discussion” within the FBI.
“I'm not looking to shirk responsibility,” Comey said. “The director is responsible.”
A Justice Department inspector general report did not find evidence of partisan bias and concluded the investigation was opened for a legitimate reason. But Republican lawmakers have seized on the critical aspects of the watchdog report to cast broader doubt on the Russia investigation. They have also released documents they say support the conclusion that the probe was flawed.
On Tuesday, Graham revealed that he had received declassified information on the probe from national intelligence director John Ratcliffe, a Trump loyalist, even though Ratcliffe has said he does not know if it is true.
In a letter to Graham made public Tuesday, Ratcliffe said that in late July 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies obtained “insight” into Russian spycraft alleging that Clinton had “approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against” Trump.
But Ratcliffe added that American intelligence agencies do “not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”
Comey brushed aside questions about that document, saying, “I don’t understand Mr. Ratcliffe's letter well enough to comment on it. It’s confusing."
The Senate panel has already heard from Rod Rosenstein and Sally Yates, both former deputy attorneys general, and has scheduled testimony from ex-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.