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Comey to publicly testify before Senate panel
Former FBI director James Comey agreed to testify before an open session of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Former FBI director James Comey agreed to testify before an open session of the Senate Intelligence Committee. (Reuters)
Former FBI director James Comey agreed to testify before an open session of the Senate Intelligence Committee, after a damaging week for the White House. The hearing will be held at a later date, to be set after Memorial Day. (Reuters)
James Comey just can’t seem to stop haunting President Trump. Trump fired Comey as FBI director a few weeks ago, drawing criticism from Democrats and Republicans since the FBI is in the middle of an investigation into Russia meddling in the U.S. election and whether Trump’s campaign helped.
Then we learned Comey took “detailed” notes that outline potentially legally murky questions the president asked him. And now, Comey is expected to testify to the Senate — as early as next week — about much of this.
Comey is known as a drama-adverse guy, and this is as dramatic as it gets. So what’s in it for him?
We tried our best to get inside Comey’s head and run down the pros and cons of sharing what he knows with Congress in a way that could set Comey up for a major showdown with the president.
Pro: His reputation is at stake
Trump fired Comey for doing a bad job, then called him a “nut job” to the Russians.
That is presumably not how Comey wanted to go out.
Comey spent more than a decade in high-profile public service jobs cultivating a reputation as a competent, aggressively nonpartisan public servant. Two different presidents of two different parties appointed him to top law enforcement jobs.
The Fix’s Aaron Blake reports Comey’s reputation in law enforcement was as a guy who genuinely tried to do the right thing but occasionally made mistakes.
Then came the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, and Comey’s handling of it peeved Democrats. Trump’s decision to fire Comey was controversial, but some Republicans in Congress thought it was deserved. “Given the recent controversies surrounding the director,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), “I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well.”
Now, Comey has a chance to tell his side of his story — and try to clear his name.
Con: It could turn into a Comey vs. the president war of words
If we know one thing about how Trump reacts to controversy, it’s that when he’s poked by a stick, he swings back with the forest.
And Comey could soon be the biggest confrontation to the president’s reputation yet. According to “highly detailed” notes Comey made of his conversations with Trump, Trump asked him to lay off the FBI probe of Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
The New York Times reported Trump sought a loyalty pledge from Comey. The Washington Post reported Trump also asked other top intelligence officials to counter Comey’s congressional testimony that there is no evidence of Trump campaign collusion with Russia. (They refused.)
In short, many of the existential threats to Trump’s presidency can be traced back to Comey.
And Trump doesn’t play nice with people he perceives as his enemies. Remember when he retweeted this about his primary opponent’s wife during the campaign?
Pro: There are a lot of questions he can help clear up
Since we learned of Comey’s memos of at least one conversation with Trump, there are way more questions than answers. Such as:
- Did the president try to interfere in an independent investigation into his campaign aides?
- If so, did the president knowingly obstruct justice?
- And what did the president’s top advisers (like Vice President Pence) know?
- What did Comey learn about the extent of any Trump connections to Russia meddling in the election when he was heading the FBI investigation?
If, as Comey has testified to Congress when he was FBI director, the truth matters more than any one person’s political fortunes, then sharing what he knows with Congress could have upsides for Comey.
He’s no longer leading an ultrasensitive investigation, so he can talk about what he knows and clear up any narratives out there he thinks are false. (The Post’s Devlin Barrett reports Comey isn’t expected to shed any new light on the ongoing FBI investigation but rather focus on his conversations with the president.)
Con: Comey better have his facts straight, or else
For one, the Trump administration is excellent at picking out a factual mistake and trying to discredit everything else that person — or the group that person belongs to — says or does.
And the last time Comey testified to Congress, he got at least one fact wrong. As part of his justification for resurfacing the FBI’s Clinton email investigation 11 days before the election, Comey said investigators found “hundreds and thousands” of Clinton emails on disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner’s computer. (Weiner is the ex-husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin.)
The FBI had to amend the record of Comey’s testimony the next day to say the number of Clinton emails on Weiner’s computer were much smaller, and it wasn’t a “regular practice” as Comey testified.
Pro: Comey is good at congressional testimony
Before the 2016 campaign, Comey’s most famous moment came in the hot seat in Congress.
It was 2007. A Democratic Congress was investigating the Bush Justice Department. They called in Comey, who had recently finished a job as the No. 2 official in Bush’s Justice Department, for what they thought would be a routine testimony.
But Comey had a story up his sleeve from 2004.
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Attorney General John Ashcroft was sick in the hospital. Comey, then Ashcroft’s deputy, got a call that Bush officials were on their way to the hospital to convince Ashcroft to sign on the dotted line and reauthorize Bush’s controversial domestic surveillance program, which the Justice Department had just said was illegal.
Sirens blaring, Comey said he raced to Ashcroft’s hospital room, arriving minutes before Bush’s White House officials did. Ashcroft didn’t authorize the program.
The Post’s Paul Kane said this is perhaps the most-riveting 20 minutes of congressional testimony ever.
And it was completely unexpected.
This time, we are fully expecting bombshells from Comey. If he wants to deliver them, well, he knows how. And he’s clearly decided it’s to his benefit to do so.
The Trump administration is moving toward handing back to Russia two diplomatic compounds, near New York City and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, that its officials were ejected from in late December as punishment for Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
President Barack Obama said Dec. 29 that the compounds were being “used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes” and gave Russia 24 hours to vacate them. Separately, Obama expelled from the United States what he said were 35 Russian “intelligence operatives.”
Early last month, the Trump administration told the Russians that it would consider turning the properties back over to them if Moscow would lift its freeze, imposed in 2014 in retaliation for U.S. sanctions related to Ukraine, on construction of a new U.S. consulate on a certain parcel of land in St. Petersburg.
Two days later, the U.S. position changed. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at a meeting in Washington that the United States had dropped any linkage between the compounds and the consulate, according to several people with knowledge of the exchanges.
Trump administration looks to return Russian-owned compounds shut down by Obama
The Trump administration is looking to return the two Russian compounds that were closed by the Obama administration as part of sanctions for Moscow’s election meddling. The two compounds are located in Maryland and New York. The Trump administration is looking to return the two Russian compounds that were closed by the Obama administration. (WUSA 9)
In Moscow on Wednesday, Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov said Russia was “taking into account the difficult internal political situation for the current administration” but retained the option to reciprocate for what he called the “expropriation” of Russian property “if these steps are not somehow adjusted by the U.S. side,” the news outlet Sputnik reported.
Senior Tillerson adviser R.C. Hammond said that “the U.S. and Russia have reached no agreements.” He said the next senior- level meeting between the two governments, below the secretary of state level, will be in June in St. Petersburg.
Before making a final decision on allowing the Russians to reoccupy the compounds, the administration is examining possible restrictions on Russian activities there, including removing the diplomatic immunity the properties previously enjoyed. Without immunity, the facilities would be treated as any other buildings in the United States and would not be barred to entry by U.S. law enforcement, according to people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters.
Any concessions to Moscow could prove controversial while administration and former Trump campaign officials are under congressional and special counsel investigation for alleged ties to Russia.
Changes in the administration’s official posture toward the compounds come as Russian media recently suggested that Kislyak, about to leave Washington after serving as ambassador since 2008, may be proposed by the Kremlin to head a new position as U.N. undersecretary general for counterterrorism.
Kislyak, who met and spoke during the campaign and transition with President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn; Trump’s White House adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner; Attorney General Jeff Sessions; and others, is known to be interested in the post. His replacement as ambassador, Deputy Foreign Minister Anatoly Antonov, was confirmed last month by the Russian Duma, or parliament. Officials in Moscow said Russian President Vladimir Putin will officially inform Trump of the new ambassador when the two meet in July, at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg. It will be Trump’s first meeting with Putin as president.
The U.N. General Assembly must first approve establishment of the counterterrorism slot, part of a larger U.N. reorganization and the first new post at that level for decades.
Russia will almost certainly claim the slot as the only member of the five permanent members of the Security Council without one of its nationals in a senior U.N. position. Jeffrey Feltman, a former senior U.S. diplomat, is undersecretary-general for political affairs; comparable jobs for peacekeeping, humanitarian affairs and economic affairs are held, respectively, by nationals from France, Britain and China.
Secretary General António Guterres will decide who fills the new job, although both Russia and the United States are expected to make their views known.
Kislyak has repeatedly rejected descriptions of him in the U.S. media as a spy. Asked whether U.S. intelligence considered him to be one, James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence, told CNN on Sunday that “given the fact that he oversees a very aggressive intelligence operation in this country — the Russians have more intelligence operatives than any other nation that is represented in this country, still even after we got rid of 35 of them — and so to suggest that he is somehow separate or oblivious to that is a bit much.”
The Russian compounds — a 14-acre estate on Long Island and several buildings on secluded acreage along the Corsica River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore — have been in Russian possession since the days of the Soviet Union. According to a Maryland deed in 1995, the former USSR transferred ownership of the Maryland property to the Russian Federation in 1995 for a payment of one dollar.
Russia said it used the facilities, both of which had diplomatic immunity, for rest and recreation for embassy and U.N. employees and to hold official events. But U.S. officials dating to the Reagan administration, based on aerial and other surveillance, had long believed they were also being used for intelligence purposes.
Last year, when Russian security services began harassing U.S. officials in Moscow — including slashed tires, home break-ins, and, at one point, tackling and throwing to the ground a U.S. embassy official entering through the front of the embassy — the Obama administration threatened to close the compounds, former Obama officials said.
In meetings to protest the treatment, the Obama administration said that it would do so unless the harassment stopped, and Moscow dropped its freeze on construction of a new consulate to replace the one in St. Petersburg, considered largely unusable because of Russian spying equipment installed there. Russia had earlier blocked U.S. use of a parcel of land and construction guarantees in the city when sanctions were imposed after its military intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.
The threat of closing the compounds was not pursued. In late December, after U.S. intelligence said there had been election meddling, and in response to the ongoing harassment in Moscow, Obama ordered the compounds closed and diplomats expelled. “We had no intention of ever giving them back,” a former senior Obama official said of the compounds.
Trump, then at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, appeared to disparage the Obama administration sanctions, telling reporters, “I think we ought to get on with our lives.”
Surprisingly, Russia did not respond. It later emerged that Flynn, in a phone conversation with Kislyak, had advised against retaliation and indicated that U.S. policy would change under the Trump administration.
The Kremlin made clear that the compound issue was at the top of its bilateral agenda. Russia repeatedly denounced what it called the “seizure” of the properties as an illegal violation of diplomatic treaties.
On May 8, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, Thomas Shannon, traveled to New York to meet with his Russian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on what the State Department described as “a range of bilateral issues” and what Russia called “irritants” and “grievances.”
Ryabkov brought up the compounds, while Shannon raised St. Petersburg and harassment, suggesting that they deal with the operation of their diplomats and facilities in each others’ countries separate from policy issues such as Syria and proposing that they clear the decks with a compromise.
Russia refused, saying that the compound issue was a hostile act that deserved no reciprocal action to resolve and had to be dealt with before other diplomatic problems could be addressed. In an interview with Tass, Ryabkov said Moscow was alarmed that Washington “carries on working out certain issues in its traditional manner, particularly concerning Russia’s diplomatic property in the states of Maryland and New York.”
Two days later in Washington, Tillerson told Lavrov that the United States would no longer link the compounds to the issue of St. Petersburg.
Immediately after their May 10 meeting at the State Department, Tillerson escorted Lavrov and Kislyak to the Oval Office. There, they held a private meeting with Trump. The night before, the president had fired FBI Director James B. Comey, who was then heading an FBI investigation of the Russia ties.
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Comey, Trump told the Russians, was a “real nut job,” and his removal had “taken off” the Russia-related pressure the president was under, the New York Times reported. Later in May, the Justice Department appointed former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III as special counsel to oversee the federal investigation.
In a news conference at the Russian Embassy after his meetings with Tillerson and Trump, Lavrov said of the compound closures, “Everyone, in particular the Trump administration, is aware that those actions were illegal.”
“The dialogue between Russia and the U.S. is now free from the ideology that characterized it under the Barack Obama administration,” he said.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.
How many soldiers does America need to turn the tide in Afghanistan? The Taliban controls half the country and continues to gain ground. The Pentagon and generals in the field want U.S. President Donald Trump to send an additional 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers to Afghanistan to help win the war. But we’ve been here before. In 2009, Stanley McChrystal famously requested a troop surge and got it. In the long run, an extra 30,000 soldiers didn’t matter.
This week on War College, journalist and author Douglas Wissing tells us why he thinks a troop surge in Afghanistan a terrible idea. Wissing has embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan three times in the past 16 years. He’s written two books on the country and he’s not optimistic about America’s long-term military prospects in a war that’s almost two decades old.
By Matthew Gault
Produced by Bethel Habte
Judge Napolitano’s Chambers: Judge Andrew Napolitano reacts to the hyper secrecy behind the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and how that leads to a lack of transparency that affects the public
The Russian bank chairman who reportedly met with Jared Kushner in December was handpicked by Putin to run Russia’s state bank. CNN’s Drew Griffin looks at Sergey Gorkov.