WASHINGTON — House Republicans interviewed James Comey behind closed doors Friday, hauling the former FBI director to Capitol Hill one final time before they cede power to Democrats in January. GOP lawmakers who stepped outside while the questioning was underway indicated they weren’t satisfied and might try to bring him back another day.
Democrats weren’t pleased either, but for a different reason. They said the Judiciary Committee Republicans’ questions were merely distractions from the special counsel’s Russia probe.
Comey appeared for the interview after unsuccessfully fighting a subpoena in court. It was the first time he answered lawmakers’ questions since an explosive June 2016 hearing in which he asserted that President Donald Trump fired him to interfere with his FBI investigation of alleged Russia ties to the Trump campaign.
Two GOP-led committees are wrapping up a yearlong investigation into decisions made at the Justice Department during the 2016 presidential election. Republicans argue that department officials were biased against Trump as they started the investigation and cleared Democrat Hillary Clinton in a separate probe into her email use. Comey was in charge of both investigations.
Democrats have said the investigations by the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees are merely a way to distract from and undermine the special counsel’s Russia probe. Mueller took over the department’s investigation when he was appointed in May 2017.
Under a deal struck with the Judiciary Committee, Comey was to be free to speak about Friday’s questioning afterward and a transcript was to be released. Comey had argued that Republicans would selectively leak details and mischaracterize the proceedings.
Walking into the meeting, Comey said he might answer questions in public after the session. He gave a wry answer when asked if he was “best friends” with Mueller, as Trump has tweeted.
“Note that I smiled,” Comey said.
After the questioning was underway, some Republicans signaled they were unhappy with Comey’s level of cooperation. California Rep. Darrell Issa said Comey had two lawyers in the room, his personal lawyer and a lawyer from the Justice Department. He said the department lawyer repeatedly instructed Comey not to answer “a great many questions that are clearly items at the core of our investigation.”
Issa suggested the committee might bring Comey back because he wasn’t answering questions. Two other Republicans, Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona and Mark Meadows of North Carolina, also suggested they might need a second session with Comey if they didn’t finish their interview by a late afternoon deadline.
Democrats disagreed that Comey wasn’t being cooperative.
“He answered the questions he had to answer,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois. But he added that he was left with the impression that “we got nowhere today.”
Florida Rep. Ted Deutsch said the Republican majority “wishes to only ask questions still about Hillary Clinton’s emails, all to distract from the big news today, which is what’s happening in court.”
Mueller was to reveal more details about his Russia investigation in court on Friday as he faced deadlines in the cases of Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and former personal lawyer Michael Cohen.
Over the past year, Republicans on the two committees have called in a series of officials and suggested after the closed-door meetings that there is evidence of bias. The investigation’s most public day was a 10-hour hearing in which former FBI special agent Peter Strzok defended anti-Trump texts he sent to a colleague as he helped lead both investigations. Strzok defiantly fought with angry Republican lawmakers in a riveting hearing that featured Strzok reading aloud from his sometimes-lewd texts, and Democrats and Republicans openly yelling at each other.
New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, said as he walked into the Comey interview that he will end the investigation when Democrats take the House majority in January.
“This is a waste of time to start with,” Nadler said. “The entire purpose of this investigation is to cast aspersions on the real investigation … there is no evidence whatsoever of bias at the FBI or any of this other nonsense.”
Comey, who has testified publicly on Capitol Hill about both the Clinton and Russia investigations, balked at the subpoena because he said committees were prone to selectively reveal information for political purposes.
“Don’t do it in a dark corner and don’t do it in a way where all you do is leak information,” said Comey’s attorney, David Kelley.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., decried Comey’s use of “baseless litigation” and called it an “attempt to run out the clock on this Congress,” a reference to the few weeks left before Democrats take control. Both Goodlatte and South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the oversight panel, are also retiring at the end of the year.
After the court fight was resolved, Goodlatte said a transcript will be released “as soon as possible after the interview, in the name of our combined desire for transparency.”
A report released this June from the Justice Department’s internal watchdog said Comey was “insubordinate” in his handling of the Clinton email investigation in the final months of the 2016 campaign. But it also found there was no evidence that Comey’s or the department’s final conclusions were motivated by political bias toward either candidate.
The report said the former FBI director, who announced in July 2016 that Clinton had been “extremely careless” with classified material but would not be charged with any crime, repeatedly departed from normal Justice Department protocol. Yet it did not second-guess his conclusion that Clinton should not have been prosecuted, despite assertions by Trump and his supporters that anyone less politically connected would have been charged.