On yesterday's edition of Fox News Sunday, anchor Chris Wallace repeatedly challenged fired FBI Director James Comey over the findings of the DOJ Inspector General's report on the agency's Trump-Russia investigation -- again and again contrasting Comey's own words with those of Michael Horowitz. Comey's strongest talking point, which he deployed several times, was to knock down the most cartoonish allegations leveled against him by some of the president's defenders. But beyond that, it was a brutal performance by the Bureau's ex-chief, with Wallace holding his feet to the fire for 15 solid minutes. The full clip is worth your time, and I'll add some commentary below:
(1) Comey spun his "vindication" line by defining that term almost comically narrowly. As he tells it, the fact that he hasn't been frog-marched off to jail essentially justifies the claim -- even though Horowitz specifically said that his report does not exonerate anyone involved in the process, including Comey himself. It's not entirely a straw man argument, per se, because some people did make outlandish statements and predictions on this front. But it's a weak deflection from the report's litany of deeply troubling details and indictments.
(2) To his partial credit, Comey concedes that his previous blithe and self-righteous assertions to the American people that the FISA application process was conducted in a "thoughtful and appropriate" manner were "wrong." But he chalked up the abuses to mere "mistakes" and "sloppiness," invoking the media-preferred IG takeaways that there was no evidence of intentional bias, and that the investigation was properly predicated at the outset. Of course, John Durham has disputed the latter point, and Horowitz himself punctured the former one with this answer:
THIS is the only 25 seconds you need to see.— thebradfordfile™ (@thebradfordfile) December 11, 2019
It's "INEXPLICABLE." pic.twitter.com/YE2wUaiCKU
"It’s fair for people to look at all of these 17 events and wonder how it could be pure incompetence," Horowitz also said, strongly suggesting that he's not buying the 'no intentional bias' story either. Comey criticizes Attorney General Bill Barr for making exactly the same observation, calling it "irresponsible." But Barr's analysis is well-founded and is likely fortified by his knowledge about Durham's ongoing criminal investigation.
(3) Bizarrely, Comey disputes that there was any FBI misconduct in all of this, again chalking up the problems to sloppiness and errors. But in addition to Horowitz's answers in item two above (all of those "mistakes" cut in the same direction), his report includes a criminal referral of an FBI agent who tampered with a document, eliminating exculpatory evidence that should have been weighed in favor of the Trump associate targeted with government surveillance. Pressed by Wallace, Comey has no response to how this aligns with his 'no misconduct' claim, muttering about how the situation remains unresolved. At another point in the discussion, Comey admits that the FISA court was "given false information by the FBI." In what world does this not constitute misconduct?
(4) Most incoherent and damning among Comey's self-serving framing and evasions was his refusal to level with the audience on the role the Steele dossier played in the Trump/Russia investigation. The IG report found that it was not credible, noting that the CIA considered it tantamount to "internet rumors." A number of its contents have been explicitly disproven. Its two most infamous claims have also withered -- the "pee tape" turned out to have been based on a comment made "in jest" over drinks, and the Mueller report found no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. The FBI discovered these things to be true over time, yet continued using the dossier as the "central" and "essential" basis for surveilling Carter Page, consistently omitting exculpatory and mitigating evidence along the way.
Comey engaged in some tortured parsing of the centrality and essential nature of the dossier, contra the IG's crucial finding, even doubling down that it was "not a huge part" of the FBI's presentation to the court. But it was. Indeed, it was the largest and most important piece of the puzzle. Comey won't admit this and obfuscates to avoid doing so. His answers about the reliability of Steele and the FBI's related actions were also misleading, prompting Wallace to accuse Comey of "mischaracterizing" what happened (I'll also remind you that Comey pushed for the unverified, rumor-filled dossier to be included in an official US intelligence community assessment). My real-time reaction as I watched in the FNS green room, where Katie Pavlich and I were waiting to appear on the panel:
Comey incoherent on the Steele dossier’s centrality to FISA application.— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) December 15, 2019
He just said it wasn’t *that* important. What? Wow. Now he’s suggesting the Steele report wasn’t debunked.
Wallace taking Comey apart here.
(5) Comey states that as FBI Director, he wasn't intimately involved in the Trump/Russia investigation on a granular level, claiming that at various junctures he "didn't know the particulars of the investigation." Wallace shoots back, "but this isn't some investigation, sir. This is an investigation of the campaign of the man who is the president of the United States." Inescapably true. Not only that, it was also a counterintelligence inquiry into a hostile foreign government actively trying to influence the US presidential election, and to perhaps compromise a president. Based on the gravity of those two elements, and Comey's known personal involvement at various stages of it, his distancing efforts don't seem especially plausible or persuasive.
If Comey intended to strut his way through a triumphant 'vindication' end zone dance on Fox News, he had another thing coming. He ran into the buzzsaw of Chris Wallace, armed with the facts Comey's own prior statements. Many fair-minded observers, including a few non-conservatives watching the exchange at the Fox bureau, did not see Comey's performance as helpful to his narrative at all. This sentiment captures my overall assessment rather wall:
This Chris Wallace interview on @FoxNewsSunday is devastating for Jim Comey. He comes out looking slippery, like he’s shading the truth.— Eli Lake (@EliLake) December 15, 2019