Former FBI Director James Comey told a Senate hearing Wednesday that the FBI had a legitimate reason to launch its investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign and defended the agency’s general conduct — but said he would not have approved a controversial part of the probe if he had known facts that have since emerged.
“In the main, it was done by the book, it was appropriate, and it was essential that it be done,” he said. “Overall, I am proud of the work, but there are parts of it we will talk about that are concerning.”
Comey’s first congressional testimony since the Justice Department’s inspector general revealed problems with the investigation turned out to be two hearings in one, with Republicans and Democrats offering sharply contrasting views.
Republicans focused their concerns on the IG report’s discovery of 17 errors and omissions in the applications for a secret warrant to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approved the warrants, was not told that Page had done work for the CIA. That would have explained why he had contact with certain Russians. And it was not told that the infamous Steele dossier, which was used to bolster the application, was based largely on a discredited source with ties to Russian intelligence.
“I’m saying this to my Democratic friends: If it happened to us, it could happen to you. Every American should be worried about this,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the committee’s chairman. “This is not just an abuse of power against Mr. Page and the Trump campaign. This is a system failure, and you could be next.”
Committee Democrats, by contrast, said the inspector general’s report concluded that the FBI had legitimate reasons for opening the investigation, after an Australian diplomat told U.S. authorities that a Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, had said Russians offered him dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the errors in the Page FISA application were serious, “but they played no part in the broader Russia investigation.”
Comey agreed. “The overarching investigation was very important,” he said. “The Page slice of it, far less, given the scope.”
Comey approved the Page warrant application and subsequent renewals. But he told the hearing that he was not aware of its omissions or that Steele’s dossier was based on rumors passed along by a suspected Russian spy. Had he known those things, he said, he would not have approved the Page applications.
Asked by Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., how these errors could happen on his watch, Comey said he now believes the FISA process had too many people involved, diffusing accountability.
“I think all of us, me in particular, took comfort in the complexity of the layers and layers and layers of review and associated with FISA,” he said. “What we thought was a good thing was actually a bad thing.”
Comey said the FBI should instead handle FISA applications in the same way applications for wiretaps are issued in criminal cases, “where a single agent and a single lawyer are responsible, and they feel the squeeze of signing their name.”
Hours later, President Donald Trump weighed in on Twitter.
“So when will something significant happen to James Comey? Got caught cold,” he tweeted. “He is either very dumb, or one of the worst liars in political history.”
He then tweeted again, stating Comey “should be tried for treason.”
“Comey is a disaster who cheated and lied. How do you write books when you can’t remember anything? Should be tried for treason. This is ridiculous,” Trump wrote.