(Jonathan Easley) The Republican National Committee rushed to President Trump’s defense on Wednesday by saying that James Comey’s
testimony backs up Trump’s claim that the former FBI director told him
on three occasions that he was not under FBI investigation.
“President Trump was right,” said RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. “Director Comey’s statement reconfirmed what the president has been saying all along — he was never under investigation.”
Washington is gripped by Comey’s bombshell seven-page testimony, which he will read out loud before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.
In it, Comey outlines in excruciating detail several encounters he had with Trump. He says the president urged him to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Comey also says Trump asked him to publicly state that he was not under investigation in order to “lift the cloud” of suspicion hanging over the administration.
But the RNC has seized on one aspect of Comey’s testimony it says is being overlooked — that Trump is not at the center of a broader counterintelligence investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The implication is that Trump is free of any association with the alleged Russian interference.
When Trump fired Comey, the president boasted that the former FBI chief had told him as much on three separate occasions, a claim that the RNC says is backed up by Comey’s testimony.
“According to former FBI Director James Comey’s prepared testimony, he will confirm what Democrats and the media have been denying for weeks: That Comey did in fact tell the president three times that he was not under investigation,” said RNC rapid response director Michael Ahrens.
In his testimony, Comey describes how he wrestled with how to discuss the Russia investigation with Trump during a Jan. 6 briefing.
“I discussed with the FBI’s leadership team whether I should be prepared to assure President-elect Trump that we were not investigating him personally,” Comey said. “That was true; we did not have an open counter-intelligence case on him. We agreed I should do so if circumstances warranted. During our one-on-one meeting at Trump Tower, based on President-elect Trump’s reaction to the briefing and without him directly asking the question, I offered that assurance.”
Later, at a Jan. 27 dinner, Comey said Trump asked him to investigate the origins of a salacious unverified Russian dossier. Comey said it would not be a good idea because it “might create a narrative that we were investigating [Trump] personally, which we weren’t.”
Then on a March 30 phone call with the president, Comey reminded Trump again that the FBI was “not personally investigating” him.
Comey explained in the written testimony why he was hesitant to state publicly that there was no investigation aimed directly at the president.
“I did not tell the president that the FBI and the Department of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most importantly because it would create a duty to correct, should that change,” Comey said.
Still, some experts are pushing back on the idea that Comey was validating Trump’s claim.
The purpose of a counterintelligence investigation is to look into sources and methods used by adversaries, not individuals suspected of crimes, writes Benjamin Wittes, a Comey ally, at the Lawfare blog.
“Ironically, the document makes perfectly clear that Trump was aware that the investigation was touching people close to him in the campaign and his company, and that he was perfectly willing [to] throw these people under bus if need be,” Wittes wrote.
“Put simply, this emphatically does not amount to Trump’s blanket statement that he was assured multiple times that he was not under investigation,” Wittes continued. “Trump might have been on solid ground in his letter firing Comey had he written that ‘I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that none of the investigations involving my campaign, my subordinates, or my companies at the present time involves an open counterintelligence case directed at me personally.’ Somehow, however, that lacks the self-exculpating ring the president seems to have been going for.”
Wittes is paraphrasing from the letter Trump wrote in firing Comey.
“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to lead the bureau,” Trump wrote in a letter to Comey dated May 9.
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