Comey Thought He Could Handle Trump’s Interference

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FBI Director James Comey at the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Russian actions during the 2016 election campaign on March 20, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty

This article first appeared on the Just security site.

James Comey really is the master of the contemporaneous record. He’s been laying down a breadcrumb trail of clues about what’s going on behind the scenes not just in his memos, but also in his public statements.

On May 3, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on FBI oversight, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked Comey whether the White House had cooperated with the FBI’s investigation into whether any associates of President Donald Trump coordinated with Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.

Comey made it clear that he wouldn’t tell the committee about his interactions with the White House.

COMEY: That’s not something I’m going to comment on.

BLUMENTHAL: Have you had any requests for immunity from anyone, potentially a target of that investigation?

COMEY: I have to give you the same answer Senator.

BLUMENTHAL: Would you tell this committee if there is a lack of cooperation on the part of the White House?

COMEY: I won’t commit to that.

Since his memo about his conversations with Trump was first reported by the New York Times , a question that’s been asked is why Comey didn’t act on the information in his possession that showed the president had tried to influence an ongoing investigation or decide to resign.

Two possible rationales have been floated: He didn’t think that Trump was actually going to impede the investigation and/or he didn’t want to resign and have a Trump crony come in and torpedo the investigation after his departure.

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Comey’s testimony certainly hints at that, at least as of May 3, he thought he could handle Trump. Blumenthal asked whether a special prosecutor was needed, suggesting that it could be problematic that if Comey faced a lack of cooperation from the White House, he would have to take the matter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was appointed by Trump.

COMEY: If there was a challenge with any investigation that I couldn’t resolve at the working level, I would elevate it to the Deputy Attorney General whoever was in charge of it.

In a last interesting tidbit, Comey also expressed confidence that Rosenstein — who days later trashed Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, but on Wednesday night partially redeemed himself by appointing former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead the Russia investigation — would make the right decision about how to handle any issue about White House influence on the investigation.

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Pressed by Blumenthal on whether Rosenstein, as a Trump appointee, would have an inherent “conflict of interest,” Comey fell back on his judgment of Rosenstein’s character.

COMEY: It’s — it’s a consideration but also the nature of the person in the role is also very important consideration. I think we’re lucky to have somebody who thinks about the Justice System, very similar to the way I do and Pat Fitzgerald does and the way you did.

Surely Comey will testify again soon and will be questioned with more urgency on these issues. But he already laid the groundwork for what he was thinking before he was fired.

Faiza Patel is Co-Director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. She was a senior policy officer at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.