How’s He Going to Explain This?
Forgotten in all the media drama and confused White House communications of recent months was the fact that the President had several very good reasons for firing FBI Director James Comey in May. Now comes evidence of another one.
On Wednesday Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wrote to current FBI Director Christopher Wray asking for additional documents related to Mr. Comey’s decision to exonerate Hillary Clinton in 2016. FBI agents had been investigating Mrs. Clinton for her use of a private server and mishandling of classified information while serving as secretary of State. The lawmakers want more documents because they’ve found evidence in interview transcripts of Mr. Comey’s former senior FBI staff suggesting another gross violation of investigative standards. The letter was made public by the committee on Thursday.
The two senators wrote that according to unredacted portions of the transcripts, which were generated in a separate federal investigation, “in April or early May of 2016, Mr. Comey had already decided he would issue a statement exonerating Secretary Clinton. That was long before FBI agents finished their work. Mr. Comey even circulated an early draft statement to select members of senior FBI leadership. The outcome of an investigation should not be prejudged while FBI agents are still hard at work trying to gather the facts.”
As of early May 2016, the FBI had not yet interviewed Secretary Clinton. Moreover, it had yet to finish interviewing sixteen other key witnesses, including Cheryl Mills, Bryan Pagliano, Heather Samuelson, Justin Cooper, and John Bentel.
These individuals had intimate and personal knowledge relating to Secretary Clinton’s non-government server, including helping her build and administer the device. Yet, it appears that the following key FBI interviews had not yet occurred when Mr. Comey began drafting his exoneration statement:
1. May 3, 2016 – Paul Combetta
2. May 12, 2016 – Sean Misko
3. May 17, 2016 – Unnamed CIA employee
4. May 19, 2016 – Unnamed CIA employee
5. May 24, 2016 – Heather Samuelson
6. May 26, 2016 – Marcel Lehel (aka Guccifer)
7. May 28, 2016 – Cheryl Mills
8. June 3, 2016 – Charlie Wisecarver
9. June 10, 2016 – John Bentel
10. June 15, 2016 – Lewis Lukens
11. June 21, 2016 – Justin Cooper
12. June 21, 2016 – Unnamed State Dept. Employee
13. June 21, 2016 – Bryan Pagliano
14. June 21, 2016 – Purcell Lee
15. June 23, 2016 – Monica Hanley
16. June 29, 2016 – Hannah Richert
17. July 2, 2016 – Hillary Clinton
Conclusion first, fact-gathering second—that’s no way to run an investigation. The FBI should be held to a higher standard than that, especially in a matter of such great public interest and controversy.
This week’s letter is a helpful reminder that there were many legitimate reasons for sacking Mr. Comey. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote about them in May, and in particular about Mr. Comey’s decision to make a public statement of his opinions about Mrs. Clinton’s conduct:
In response to skeptical questions at a congressional hearing, the Director defended his remarks by saying that his “goal was to say what is true. What did we do, what did we find, what do we think about it.” But the goal of a federal criminal investigation is not to announce our thoughts at a press conference. The goal is to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to justify a federal criminal prosecution, then allow a federal prosecutor who exercises authority delegated by the Attorney General to make a prosecutorial decision, and then – if prosecution is warranted – let the judge and jury determine the facts.
In his memo, Mr. Rosenstein quoted former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, who served in the Clinton Administration, and former Deputy AG Larry Thompson, who served under George W. Bush. They described the Comey method in the Clinton case as “real-time, raw-take transparency taken to its illogical limit, a kind of reality TV of federal criminal investigation” that is “antithetical to the interests of justice.”
Perhaps we finally have an appropriate time for Mr. Comey to publicly announce his thoughts and offer real transparency. If he can make the case that early drafting of conclusions—before witnesses have been interviewed—serves the interests of justice, no doubt many Americans are eager to hear it.