[WASHINGTON] Former FBI director James Comey said he’ll return for a second meeting with House lawmakers after a day of closed-door questioning that he said was related mostly to Hillary Clinton’s emails.
“I’m coming back” on Dec 17 for another round, he told reporters Friday. Mr Comey, who had pressed unsuccessfully for a public hearing, said “we could have done this in an open setting”.
Republicans said they will release the transcript of Friday’s session on Saturday but complained that some lines of questioning were blocked by government lawyers who were in the room.
Mr Comey said “the FBI for understandable reasons doesn’t want me talk about of an investigation that’s still ongoing” into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. “But that is a very teeny part of what we talked about today.”
The former FBI chief, who was fired by President Donald Trump in May 2017, said “the president’s attacks on the Justice Department broadly and the FBI are something that no matter what political party you are in you should find deeply troubling.”
Minutes after Mr Comey spoke to reporters, Mr Trump tweeted: “It is being reported that Leakin’ James Comey was told by Department of Justice attorneys not to answer the most important questions. Total bias and corruption at the highest levels of previous Administration. Force him to answer the questions under oath!”
Republicans had demanded that Mr Comey testify as they continue to question his 2016 recommendation that Democrat Clinton not be prosecuted for using a private email server as secretary of state as well as his handling of a dossier of unverified allegations against Mr Trump.
With Republicans losing control of House committees and their subpoena power in January, the Comey questioning is part of a dash to wrap up their long-running examination of whether FBI and Justice Department investigative priorities were tainted by anti-Trump political bias during that year’s presidential campaign.
Democrats have decried the GOP-led probe as unwarranted, and they’ve criticised House Republicans for prematurely shutting down a more bipartisan inquiry into Russian meddling in the US election, whether anyone around Trump conspired in the interference and whether the president sought to obstruct justice.
Democrats Jerrold Nadler, who’s in line to head the Judiciary Committee next year, and Elijah Cummings, who’s poised to become the chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said in a joint statement on Friday that Mr Comey’s appearance “offered us nothing new from his previous testimony on these same matters.”
“Our Republican colleagues seem intent on spending their final days in power attempting to provide cover to President Trump and attempting to re-litigate the Department of Justice’s decision not to prosecute Secretary Clinton.”
Mr Comey initially contested a subpoena from the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, saying he wanted a public hearing because he was worried someone would leak distorted depictions of what he said.
But he dropped his court motion after Republicans agreed to release a transcript of the session quickly.
“Grateful for a fair hearing from judge. Hard to protect my rights without being in contempt, which I don’t believe in. So will sit in the dark, but Republicans agree I’m free to talk when done and transcript released in 24 hours. This is the closest I can get to public testimony,” he tweeted on Sunday.
Lawmakers from the Judiciary panel – as well as the Oversight and Government Reform Committee – also plan to interview former attorney general Loretta Lynch before Democrats take over the House majority in January.
Some Republicans, including Mark Meadows, who heads the Oversight subcommittee on government operations, have said they are focused on Mr Comey’s handling of the Clinton email case – specifically, his July 2016 decision to publicly announce that he wouldn’t recommend any charges related to her private email server use while she was secretary of state.
Alongside that, they are looking into the motivations behind the FBI’s and Justice Department’s decision to investigate alleged Russian ties to Republican Trump’s campaign. That has since evolved into Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing Russia probe.
Going into the Friday interview, Republicans said they planned to press Mr Comey on whether he engaged in greater coordination than he acknowledged in congressional testimony last year between himself, Mr Lynch and Barack Obama’s White House when he recommended against referring Mrs Clinton for prosecution.
Comey later sent a letter to Congress announcing the investigation was reopened on Oct 28, 2016 – days before the election – after the FBI found evidence of previously undiscovered emails. A Justice Department inspector general’s review has since concluded that Mr Comey didn’t act out of bias in his actions, but “chose to deviate” from established procedures and engaged “in his own subjective, ad hoc decision-making.”
Republicans also want to question Mr Comey on the FBI’s dealings and use of the dossier that claimed to document ties between Russia and Mr Trump’s presidential campaign. The dossier’s author, former former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, gave his findings to the FBI in the summer and fall of 2016 before his relationship with the agency as a confidential source was terminated for alleged contact with the media.
Meadows and others have questioned why Mr Comey may have left out some facts in early 2017 when he briefed Mr Trump on the document, including that the work was funded in part by Democrats.
The FBI and Justice Department officials also have drawn scrutiny for using the dossier to bolster applications to a national security court for a warrant to conduct surveillance on a Trump campaign aide. Mr Comey said Friday that he has “total confidence” that proper procedures were followed.
Mr Nadler has said he still believes the questioning should have been done in a public hearing, his spokesman, Daniel Schwarz, said Thursday.