Analysis: Three Big Takeaways from Bret Baier's Thorough Grilling of James Comey

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 @guypbenson
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Posted: Apr 27, 2018 2:01 PM
Analysis: Three Big Takeaways from Bret Baier's Thorough Grilling of James Comey

Fox News anchor Bret Baier (a colleague with whom I'm friendly) conducted a tour de force interview with fired FBI Director James Comey on Special Report last night, grilling Comey at length about a series of decisions and statements he made in connection to the Clinton email and Russia collusion investigations.  Full video is available here and here.  There was an enormous amount of substance tackled during the discussion, but a few exchanges jump out at me.  (1) One back-and-forth was so striking that I tweeted about it during the program:


Here's how that went down:

"What do you mean?" asks an incredulous Baier when Comey says he can't say for sure that the DNC and Clinton campaign funded the salacious dossier.  Comey clarifies that he's only heard media reports to that effect, but can't be certain they're true.  How is that possible?  First of all, the provenance of that file, and who paid for it, has been an established fact for months.  Comey was in an unique position to know basically everything about the dossier, upon which he at least partially relied (his answer on this point struck me as slippery and conflicts with other information) to secure surveillance on a former Trump campaign associate.  He claims he knew it was furnished by people opposed to Donald Trump, but never knew their specific identities.  Really?  Either that's false or he was strangely and perhaps deliberately under-informed about key details behind a crucial oppo-research file that he exploited to achieve important investigative ends.  As for his assertion that Steele's anti-Trump work was originally paid for by Republicans, this is a Democratic talking point that has long been debunked, as Baier notes.  Conservative figures did employ Fusion GPS for a time to gather research on Trump, but they did not fund Steele or his dossier.  As Byron York says, "given its importance in Trump-Russia probe and his own relationship with the president, James Comey's ignorance of some basic facts about the dossier is stunning."

(2) On the Clinton email scandal probe, Comey defends his actions over the course of that process -- persuasively at times, and less so at others.  His explanation of his judgments about Clinton's criminal intent wasn't terribly compelling to me.  Baier plays a montage of Comey confirming multiple lies Clinton told about her improper and national security-compromising email scheme, essentially asking how intentional deceit about arguably illegal conduct doesn't signal intent (Trey Gowdy made the same point).  Comey responds that Clinton lying to the media and the American people isn't the same as lying to the FBI.  That's true as a legal matter, but lying to the FBI wasn't the core potential crime under scrutiny; gross negligence in handling classified materials was.  Was Clinton merely sloppy (or 'really sloppy,' as Comey puts it in the interview), or did she have an ulterior motive for her reckless set-up, of which she was well aware and calculating? Her repeated public lies about her actions suggest the latter.  That ought to be the relevant standard on divining intent within that context, in my view.  Plus, "sloppiness" does not explain the lengths to which she went to bypass the rules and accountability, nor does it cover the knowing falsehoods and evidence destruction she engaged in when caught.

Another interesting tidbit from Comey on this general subject is his statement that he doesn't know why certain developments in the Clinton probe (including the Anthony Weiner angle) were apparently slow-walked or not kicked up the food chain sooner.  Even though he later dodges on whether Andrew McCabe should be prosecuted for his lies (why shouldn't he be?), I wonder if Comey might have some sense of what might be revealed in the forthcoming Inspector General report.  Also, several people have written about Comey's parsing about what constitutes a "leak."  Baier's specific question about the FBI code of conduct's rule on this point seemed to have Comey dead to rights, forcing Comey to claim that his memos memorializing his interactions with Trump (written in the course of his duties as FBI Director) were akin to personal diaries, and not official documents.  This may be a savvy legal answer, but it sounds absurd on its face to a layperson.

(3) In my earlier Comey-related post, I mentioned the theory that the decision to brief President-elect Trump only about the most prurient aspect of the dossier (regarding Russian prostitutes) was a set-up to offer a "news hook" to media outlets eager to run with the story.  Baier put this theory to Comey, who said he didn't leak about that briefing to anyone, adding that former Obama intelligence official James Clapper didn't either, to his knowledge.  The Federalist's Mollie Hemingway pieced together and floated this idea a week ago:

Newly released memos written by former FBI director James Comey indicate that an early 2017 briefing for then-President-elect Donald Trump about the contents of an infamous dossier was held so it could be leaked to media outlets eager to report on the dossier’s allegations. In multiple memos, Comey specifically mentioned that CNN had the dossier and wanted a “news hook” that would enable the network to report on its most salacious allegations even though they had not been verified...Comey, at Clapper’s expressed behest, told Trump that CNN was “looking for a news hook” to publish dossier allegations. He said this in the briefing of Trump that almost immediately leaked to CNN, which provided them the very news hook they sought and needed. This briefing, and the leaking of it, legitimized the dossier, which touched off the Russia hysteria.

And it appears as though a newly declassified report confirms her suspicions:

Buried within a newly declassified congressional report on Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections is a shocking revelation: former Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper not only leaked information about the infamous Steele dossier and high-level government briefings about it to CNN, he also may have lied to Congress about the matter. In one of the findings within the 253-page report, the House intelligence committee wrote that Clapper leaked details of a dossier briefing given to then-President-elect Donald Trump to CNN’s Jake Tapper, [and] lied to Congress about the leak..."Clapper flatly denied ‘discussing[ing] the dossier [compiled by Steele] or any other intelligence related to Russia hacking of the 2016 election with journalists,'” the committee found. When asked directly whether he had ever discussed the dossier with any journalists, Clapper replied that he had not, according to a transcript of the proceedings...The former DNI later changed his story after he was confronted specifically about his communications with Jake Tapper of CNN...“Clapper subsequently acknowledged discussing the ‘dossier with CNN journalist Jake Tapper,’ and admitted that he might have spoken with other journalists about the same topic,” the report continued. “Clapper’s discussion with Tapper took place in early January 2017, around the time IC leaders briefed President Obama and President-elect Trump, on ‘the Christopher Steele information...’

If these new revelations are correct, they raise a new question for Mr. Comey: Was he intentionally used by a senior Obama administration official to help "legitimize" the dossier by providing the very "news hook" media figures were looking for? Or was he in on it?  I'll leave you with this review of Bret Baier's performance last evening, with which I concur: