FBI Director Comey Defends Handling Of Clinton Email Investigation

May 3, 2017
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FBI Director James Comey says he would not change how he handled sensitive investigations during last year's presidential campaign. On Capitol Hill today, he said he did the right thing when he sent a letter to Congress telling them the FBI had reopened the case involving Hillary Clinton's emails. And he is still refusing to talk about the ongoing investigation into Donald Trump's campaign ties to Russia. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: James Comey compared his Senate oversight hearing to a visit to the dentist, one that lasted for four hours. Right out of the gate, Democrats demanded to know why he sent a letter to Congress 11 days before the presidential election and whether that cost Democrat Hillary Clinton the White House.

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JAMES COMEY: Look, this was terrible. It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election. But honestly, it wouldn't change the decision. Everybody who disagrees with me has to come back to October 28 with me and stare at this and tell me what you would do.

JOHNSON: Comey says he had two choices - speak up about new emails the FBI found on a computer belonging to the husband of Clinton's close aide or keep that from lawmakers and be accused of a cover-up.

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COMEY: Would you speak or would you conceal? And I could be wrong, but we honestly made a decision between those two choices that even in hindsight - and this has been one of the world's most painful experiences - I would make the same decision.

JOHNSON: Democrats, pollsters and even Hillary Clinton herself say the decision by Comey in the last days of the race played a significant role in her loss. Comey told lawmakers he knew at the time he was headed for trouble.

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COMEY: I have a fabulous staff at all levels. And one of my junior lawyers said, should you consider that what you're about to do may help elect Donald Trump president? And I said, thank you for raising that. Not for a moment because down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent institution in America.

JOHNSON: His actions are now under investigation by the Justice Department inspector general. Comey says he welcomes that review and has already been interviewed once about his conduct. The Justice watchdog is also investigating media leaks about the candidates. That's a subject of intense interest to Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley.

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CHARLES GRASSLEY: Director Comey, have you ever been an anonymous source in news reports about matters relating to the Trump investigation or the Clinton investigation?

COMEY: Never.

JOHNSON: Comey says he's not sure whether any of his agents slipped damaging information about Clinton to Trump advisers last year. He says if he finds any bad conduct there will be, quote, "severe consequences." But the FBI director says he has no doubt Russia bears responsibility for last year's hack into the Democratic National Committee. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham worries that Russia is still interfering in U.S. politics.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: What kind of threat do you believe Russia presents to our democratic process given what you know about Russia's behavior of late?

COMEY: Well, certainly that - in my view, the greatest threat of any nation on earth given their intention and their capability.

JOHNSON: But when it came to questions about the counterintelligence probe into Trump campaign contacts with Russia, the FBI director took a closed-mouth approach. He refused to say who's under investigation. He offered no timetable. And he wouldn't say whether he's looked at the president's investments and tax returns or whether the White House is cooperating with the FBI. Democrats want independent oversight of the case. Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal.

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RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Because of the appearance of a potential conflict of interest, isn't this situation absolutely crying out for a special prosecutor?

COMEY: That's a judgment for the deputy attorney general or the acting attorney general on this matter.

JOHNSON: There's no word yet from the new Justice Department brass on a special prosecutor. And perhaps most galling of all to Democrats, Comey wouldn't commit to a public statement if and when the Russia probe ends. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.