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James Comey: FBI had ‘basis for investigating’ possible ties between Trump and Russia

Former FBI Director James Comey on Monday criticized a House Intelligence Committee report that found no evidence of collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, saying the FBI had a “basis for investigating” the matter.

“There was a basis for investigating, meaning there were facts to support an investigation” into alleged ties between Russia and members of Trump’s campaign, Comey said in an interview with the PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff. “To say there was no evidence just wasn’t the case.”

Comey joined a chorus of critics who have slammed the report in recent days. President Trump touted the finding on Twitter, repeating his frequent claim that the Russia probe was a “total witch hunt.”

In the NewsHour interview, Comey, who is on a media tour to promote his new book, also defended his decision-making surrounding the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server during the 2016 election.

The former FBI chief said he was trying to “do the right thing” when he sent a letter to Congress less than two weeks before the election announcing the bureau had reopened its probe into Clinton’s emails. Comey said the alternative option — not going public with the FBI’s actions — would have been “catastrophic.”

“We were stuck in the middle of a no-win situation,” Comey said.

Clinton and many Democrats have argued that Comey’s letter to Congress helped Trump win the election. Comey, who was fired by Trump last May, has insisted he wasn’t taking sides in the race.

Other highlights from the interview:

  • Comey said he launched an investigation to find out if someone at the FBI leaked information to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani about his decision to go public with the reopened Clinton probe. Two days before Comey sent his letter to Congress, Giuliani predicted the Trump campaign had a “pretty big surprise.” Giuliani, who joined Trump’s personal legal team this month, has said he was not talking about the Clinton probe.
  • The former FBI director said he regretted including a description of Trump’s physical appearance in his memoir, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership.” Comey called his description of Trump’s skin color and hand size a “distraction” from the book’s central message on leadership, and that he did not intend to take a shot at the president.
  • Comey acknowledged that leaking happens at the FBI but said he didn’t think it was a “huge problem,” as Trump often argues. “It matters, but the FBI is not a sieve. It happens because we have 38,000 people,” Comey said.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The allegations are striking. President Trump is "unethical, untethered to the truth, and his time in office is a forest fire, damaging our country's norms and traditions."

    They come from former FBI Director James Comey. His firing last May by President Trump led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller and has made him the target of Mr. Trump's criticism for the last year.

    Comey's new book, "A Higher Loyalty," is both a memoir and, in his eyes, a lesson in leadership, ethics, and hard decisions.

    I spoke to James Comey just a short time ago and began with what he would have written differently.

  • James Comey:

    Maybe only one small thing.

    Early on, people were seizing on a portion of the book, a paragraph where I describe my first impressions of president-elect Trump. And people took it and distorted it, in my view, like I was taking shots at the guy, which I wasn't. I was trying to be an author.

    But it became such a distraction that, if I had to it to do over again, I might yank that paragraph out, describe everybody else in detail, but not include that distracting paragraph.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The personal detail about…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • James Comey:

    Yes. People thought I was taking shots at him by describing his face and his hair. And I didn't intend to. I was trying to be an author for the first time. And my editor kept saying, bring the reader with you.

    And so I tried to do it when I described my high school grocery store boss. I tried to do it when I described Donald Trump. But it became a bit of a talking point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's talk about some recent developments.

    Just on Friday, the House Intelligence Committee, the Republican majority, issued its report on their findings. They are raising doubts about one of the key findings from the intelligence agencies, that — and, namely, that the Russian government wanted to help Donald Trump.

    They're saying it's more likely that they just wanted to sow discord. Is that how you read the information you knew before you left government?

  • James Comey:

    No. In fact, very — we read it very, very differently, as did the analysts from the FBI, CIA, NSA, and the director of national intelligence.

    We reached a joint, high-confidence conclusion and one of the goals — there were three goals, but one was to help elect Donald Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, clear difference…

  • James Comey:

    Clear.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … with the committee — or the committee…

  • James Comey:

    High confidence, which is very unusual in a joint intelligence community assessment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Republican majority also said — you know this — you were asked about it — that they found no evidence of collusion, coordination with the Trump campaign.

    You said yesterday that the report didn't reflect the facts you knew before you left the FBI.

    So, does that mean you saw facts that did point to collusion?

  • James Comey:

    I'm not in a position where I can talk about what we found during the investigation.

    And, obviously, I'm not up to date, since I have been gone almost a year. But that isn't my sense of where the investigation stood when I left.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So there was something specific that you knew or saw that pointed you in that direction?

  • James Comey:

    Well, we — the FBI was investigating whether there were Americans who had conspired with or aided and abetted the Russians. Collusion actually is not a legal term that I'm aware of.

    And there was a basis for investigating, meaning there were facts to support an investigation. Now, what the conclusions will be, I don't know, but to say there was no evidence just wasn't the case.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The report also, the Republican report, House Intelligence Committee, is also faulting the FBI for failing to properly notify victims of Russian hacking.

    Did the FBI drop the ball?

  • James Comey:

    I don't think so.

    We had a massive task to notify hundreds and hundreds, so I can't sit here and say we did it perfectly every time. But especially with the prominent victims, like the Democratic National Committee, I believe we did our level best to make sure they knew they were being attacked.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And do you think the Obama administration dropped the ball in not doing more to get the Russians to back off?

  • James Comey:

    That's hard for me to say, because, a lot of it, I wasn't involved in.

    Very tough decision for President Obama. What do you say before an election about the Russian interference, when one of their goals is to sow doubt about our electoral process?

    By calling it out, have you accomplished their goal for them? So, I get the position he was in.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One other point from this majority report, the House Intelligence Committee.

    It says that the so-called Steele dossier prepared by the former British agent Christopher Steele about President Trump and other things — quote — "formed an essential part of an application to the FISA court," the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, "to begin electronic surveillance."

    Is that accurate? Could there have been a FISA warrant without the Steele dossier?

  • James Comey:

    It's not my recollection that it was an essential part of any application.

    I have to choose my words carefully here, because I don't know exactly what's been classified. But there was a mosaic of information that convinced a court that that individual, Carter Page, was — there was probable cause to believe he was an agent of a foreign power.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you're not saying there had to be a dossier for this to happen?

  • James Comey:

    In order to get the FISA warrant.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • James Comey:

    That's not my recollection.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have also had a long time to think about what was in that dossier. Did you find it credible?

  • James Comey:

    Well, the core allegation of the dossier was credible, consistent with the other intelligence that the intelligence community had gathered.

    That is that the Russians were engaged in a sophisticated, comprehensive effort aimed at our election. That turned out to be true. There were lots of spokes in the dossier off of that central hub, but the central hub was consistent with other intelligence.

    An effort was under way to try and understand whether the other spokes could be ruled in or ruled out. And I don't know where that ended up.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, the Hillary Clinton e-mails.

    You spend a good chunk of this book defending your actions, the first time, absolving her of illegality, but then going on to say she was — quote — "extremely careless," later on announcing that the investigation was being reopened.

    You write that you felt you did what you needed to do to protect the agency and how you saw your own role.

    But Secretary Clinton, when we interviewed her last fall, said, when it came to your July news conference, she saw something very different. She called it a breach of professional ethics and a rejection of Justice Department protocols.

    Here's what she said.

  • Hillary Clinton:

    The investigation was getting nowhere. There was nothing to find. And he was in a position of having to accept the evidence that there was no case.

    I think what he did, against the advice of people around him in the FBI and the Justice Department, was, in large measure, due to political pressures that he was under from people that he had worked with before in the FBI and outside the FBI.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about that?

  • James Comey:

    That's just not accurate. I hope Secretary Clinton will get a chance, if not to read the whole book, read those parts of it.

    It was about trying to make sure we did all we could to assure the public the work had been done in a competent, honest, and independent way. It wasn't contrary to advice inside the FBI. It didn't violate the protocols of the Department of Justice, except in one key respect.

    I decided to make the announcement separate from the attorney general, for a variety of reasons. But it wasn't about politics. It was about assuring people we did this in a good, honest, and independent way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But that's a pretty serious charge, a violation of professional ethics?

  • James Comey:

    Yes. And I get where that's coming from. It's just not accurate.

    And, again, I read the part of Secretary Clinton's book that was about the e-mails. And I would very much hope, even if she doesn't walk away agreeing, she would have a different perspective if she read that part of my book.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Have you had any outreach from her directly about any of this?

  • James Comey:

    No.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, she went on to say after that in the interview, said, everybody was moving forward after what happened in July.

    But then she says — she says the proximate cause of her defeat was your October 28 letter about reopening the investigation after finding those e-mails on Anthony Weiner's laptop, which she says has never been adequately explained or defended, had nothing to do with the earlier finding. That's what she said.

    And here's how Donald Trump reacted.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The FBI…

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • President Donald Trump:

    … has just sent a letter to Congress informing them that they have discovered new e-mails pertaining to the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's investigation.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • President Donald Trump:

    I have great respect for the fact that the FBI and the Department of Justice are now willing to have the courage to right the horrible mistake that they made.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, President Trump, in effect, celebrating President — or Secretary Clinton, saying this was the proximate cause that she lost.

  • James Comey:

    Yes.

    And it reflects the confusion that political people have in trying to figure out whose side is the FBI on, when we weren't and it isn't today on anybody's side.

    We were trying to make decisions when there was no good option. There were bad options, and there were worse options. In each case, we tried our best to choose bad over worse.

    And fitting that into a partisan lens is impossible, which is why you have this — I guess Donald Trump was a fan of the FBI back in that day, because he thought we had done something for him.

    We weren't doing something for him, nor were we trying to hurt Secretary Clinton. We were trying to do the right thing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How does it feel to you to be the object of this kind of strong language from the two nominees for president in 2016?

  • James Comey:

    It's painful. The whole process was a nightmare.

    Look, I wish that Secretary Clinton had never had a personal e-mail server. I wish Anthony Weiner had never had a laptop. Maybe they wish there had never been an Anthony Weiner.

    But when you get stuck in a situation like that, you know that you're stuck, and that, especially in a partisan environment, people are going to be mad at you, because they assume you're not on their side.

    We're trying to be on the country's side. So, it's painful, but, honestly, even looking back, it doesn't change the way I think about it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Another thing from President Trump, he often complains loudly about FBI leaks. How much of a problem is that?

  • James Comey:

    It's a problem in any organization. It's not, in my mind, a huge problem in the FBI.

    When it happens, we investigate it. If it's classified information, we do a criminal investigation. If it's not, we do an internal investigation.

    It matters, but it's not — the FBI is not a sieve. It happens because we have 38,000 people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I ask in part because, two years ago, there were widespread reports, fueled by Rudy Giuliani, that there were anti-Hillary agents in the New York FBI office who leaked bad stuff about her. Giuliani even suggested that he knew about some of this ahead of time.

    Did that concern you?

  • James Comey:

    Yes.

    In fact, Rudy Giuliani made a statement at the end of October that he knew something big was coming. If that's true, he knew something big was coming before I did.

    But after we had to reopen the e-mail investigation, I commissioned an investigation to try to find out, was someone giving him non-public information, in violation of our rules?

    The investigation wasn't finished before I was fired, but I know I ordered it, and I'm confident they followed that order.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I was going to ask you, do you have reason to believe that he was tipped off?

  • James Comey:

    I don't. I was very concerned by his statements and wanted to find out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But where does that stand today?

  • James Comey:

    I don't know. I got fired on May the 9th, and it wasn't finished by then.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the rest of the interview tomorrow, when James Comey has more to say about the Hillary Clinton e-mails, the role played by former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and hard decisions he and the FBI faced in 2016.

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