Former FBI Director James Comey, whose 2017 dismissal by President Donald Trump unleashed a broader investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia led by special counsel Robert Mueller, on Wednesday defended the inquiry that he initially helped launched as “essential.”
“Overall, I’m proud of the work,” Comey told a Republican-led Senate panel investigating the government’s early handling of the Russia investigation that shadowed much of Trump’s presidency.
Comey said a flawed warrant used to authorize the surveillance of former Trump aide Carter Page represented a “far less important” part of the overall investigation that went on to review the former director’s firing as part of an effort by Trump to obstruct the inquiry.
Comey, whose firing has since become the subject of a memoir and television drama, is the third high-profile witness in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s inquiry which has cast the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election as politically-motivated and undermining the Trump presidency.
On Wednesday, Committee Chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., seized on the Page surveillance warrant, suggesting that the FBI and Obama Justice Department turned its back on information that should have raised questions about the basis for seeking the Page wiretap.
Last year, the Justice Department’s inspector general found that the Page warrant application was riddled with errors, leading to the prosecution of a former FBI lawyer who last month pleaded guilty to falsifying an email used to support the surveillance request. Federal authorities also used an unverified dossier, purporting to chronicle Trump’s prior activities in Moscow, to support the warrant application.
The abuses uncovered by the inspector general, Graham said Wednesday, have “shaken” confidence in the system.
Pressed on the faulty warrant, Comey said: “Any false statement is deeply disturbing.”
Comey said he would not have approved the warrant had he been aware of the errors uncovered by the inspector general.
Graham has cast Comey’s voluntary appearance as “the day of reckoning” in the Senate inquiry. Lawmakers already have heard testimony from former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Robert Mueller to lead the 22-month Russia probe, and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who first warned the Trump administration that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his early contacts with Russia.
It was Comey’s firing, however, that would reverberate for months, starting with Trump’s acknowledgment that he took the action because of the FBI chief’s handling of the Russia investigation and the president’s connection to it.
Within weeks of Comey’s dismissal, Rosenstein appointed Mueller, paving the way for the special counsel’s wide-ranging investigation.
In explosive testimony a month following his dismissal, Comey told a separate Senate committee that he had memorialized conversations with Trump during the early days of the administration in which the president allegedly requested the FBI director’s personal “loyalty” and asked him to drop the investigation into Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador.
The memos are the heart of television mini-series, titled “The Comey Rule,” that debuted earlier this week.
Graham’s committee has cast a spotlight on the FBI’s handling of the Flynn investigation, suggesting that the bureau sought to unfairly target Flynn. The administration’s first national security adviser would later plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn moved to withdraw that guilty plea in January, claiming the government had breached the plea agreement.
While Flynn awaited sentencing, the Justice Department in May abruptly abandoned the prosecution over the objection of career prosecutors. The move was challenged by the sentencing judge, who has since asked a federal appeals court to reconsider Justice’s decision, leaving the retired Army lieutenant general’s fate uncertain, nearly three years after he first pleaded guilty.