In a last-ditch effort to use their power to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of President Donald Trump and his campaign, Republicans on the House oversight and judiciary committees held a standoff with former FBI Director James Comey that culminated in a closed-door transcribed interview on Friday.
House Republicans are using their final weeks in the majority to do everything they can to undermine Mueller’s probe into potential collusion between Trump and Russia during the 2016 presidential election. As someone who spent five years working at the Oversight Committee, I can tell you that to engage in this type of hyper-partisan activity just weeks before transitioning out of power is an extraordinary abuse of the committee’s authority. And the fact that such a proceeding occurred behind closed doors, out of the public eye, tells you all you need to know about why this is happening at this particular moment.
It wasn’t that long ago that House Oversight Republicans like my former boss Darrell Issa (Calif.), Trey Gowdy (S.C.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio) just couldn’t say enough about transparency and the American people’s “right to know.” But now, those same Republicans are content to conduct the American people’s business out of their watchful eye.
Reading the transcript of the exchanges between Republicans and Comey, it’s clear why they didn’t want any of this on camera.
Despite new filings from this week revealing unprecedented criminal conduct between Trump and his closest advisers, Gowdy, the Oversight Committee chairman, posed to Comey a series of questions about his knowledge of pro-Hillary Clinton text messages between his subordinates ― questions rooted not in facts but in completely fictitious scenarios.
Gowdy then transitioned into a line of questioning meant to entice Comey into revealing details about the FBI’s counterintelligence investigations into Russia, even though doing so would directly impede the ongoing Mueller probe. For that entirely valid reason, legal counsel made it clear that “anything that goes to the special counsel’s investigation would be off limits.” And yet Republicans like Issa, and later Trump himself, whined to the media about Comey’s refusal to actively obstruct the ongoing investigation.
From the onset, it was clear that the purpose of this interview was to extract information from Comey about the Mueller probe and to selectively weaponize his responses in order to undermine his credibility. Comey’s unwillingness to fall for the Republicans’ trap illustrates how overmatched they were against him ― which, again, is why they wanted this to happen behind closed doors.
One of the most insightful exchanges occurred when Gowdy asked Comey: “Who at the FBI has the authority to launch a counterintelligence investigation into a major political campaign, and would that eventually have to be approved by you?”
Comey’s response ― “I don’t know for a variety of reasons. I’ve never encountered a circumstance where an investigation into a political campaign was launched” ― was a stark reminder that even to the former FBI director, the investigation and credible allegations of Trump’s cooperation with Russia are truly unprecedented.
In their desperation to try and save the president from Mueller, Republicans, who are planning to bring Comey back for another day of closed-door questioning on Dec. 17, are running the risk of giving Comey and committee Democrats an opportunity to rehash some of the most troubling moments of Trump’s time in office.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) used his time to ask Comey about Trump’s efforts to convince Comey to “lay off the Flynn investigation.” Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and offered what court filings from Mueller described as “substantial” cooperation with the investigation. Had Comey done what Trump had asked of him, the Mueller probe could have unfolded very differently.
House Judiciary Committee ranking member (and soon-to-be Chairman) Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) pursued a line of questioning that would have made Trump furious had it been broadcast on TV. Nadler asked Comey how he would “characterize the special counsel investigation and its importance, not only to our national security, but as a means of restoring public confidence in our elections and law enforcement agencies?”
“My judgment as an experienced prosecutor and investigator is it’s been conducted with extraordinary speed, with extraordinary professionalism, and zero disclosure outside of public court filings,” Comey replied. “It represents the way our criminal justice system is supposed to work investigating, and I believe it’s incredibly important to the rule of law in this country and that the work be allowed to finish.”
One of the most powerful remarks Comey made in this proceeding was directly stating that “there are not many things I would bet my life on. I would bet my life that Bob Mueller will do things the right way, the way we would all want, whether we’re Republicans or Democrats, the way Americans should want.”
Republicans are unwittingly giving Comey a platform to bolster the credibility of the Mueller probe and to take Trump to task for his relentless attacks on the FBI and Justice Department. Comey made the sobering observation that Trump’s lies “hurt the ability of the FBI to be believed at a doorway or in a courtroom. That makes all of us less safe… When they’re lied about constantly, it hurts the faith and confidence of the American people in them, and that is bad for all of us.”
The most important thing Comey said during his six hours with the House Judiciary and Oversight committees was a reminder to the American people of what’s really at stake.
“The aim of the Russian effort in 2016 was to destabilize, undermine, damage our democracy,” he said. “That was their overwhelming goal. And so you have a foreign nation that is attacking the United States of America in an effort to undermine that which is essentially us, our democratic process.”
“So that’s a very serious threat,” he continued. “And understanding whether any Americans were part of that effort is incredibly important, because [of] the threat of those Americans by virtue of their alliance with the Russians would pose to our country.”
It’s clearer than ever that Republicans have no interest in what Comey really has to say ― and no interest in protecting our democracy.
Kurt Bardella is a HuffPost columnist and served as the spokesperson and senior adviser for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2009 to 2013. Follow him on Twitter: @kurtbardella.