House Republicans are interviewing James Comey behind closed doors Friday, hauling the former FBI director to Capitol Hill one final time before they cede power to Democrats in January.
Comey is appearing for the interview after unsuccessfully fighting a subpoena in court. It is the first time he has answered lawmakers’ questions since an explosive June 2016 hearing in which he asserted that President Donald Trump fired him to interfere with his investigation of Russia’s ties to the Trump campaign.
The interview comes as GOP lawmakers are wrapping up a yearlong investigation into decisions made at the Justice Department during the 2016 presidential election. Republicans argue that department officials were biased against Trump as they started the investigation into his campaign’s ties with Russia and cleared Democrat Hillary Clinton in a separate investigation into her email use. Comey was in charge of both of those investigations.
Democrats, who will also attend the interview, have said the GOP investigation is merely a way to distract from and undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. Mueller took over the department’s investigation when he was appointed in May 2017.
Under a deal struck with the House Judiciary Committee, Comey will be free to speak about the questioning afterward and a transcript will be released. He argued that Republicans would selectively leak details from the interview.
The interview is expected to last much of the day. Walking into the meeting, Comey said he might answer questions afterward. He also gave a wry answer when asked if he is “best friends” with Mueller, as Trump has tweeted.
“Note that I smiled,” Comey said.
Over the last year, Republicans on the Judiciary and House Oversight and Government Reform panels have brought in a series of officials and said after the closed-door meetings that there is evidence of bias. The investigation’s most public moment was a 10-hour hearing in which former FBI special agent Peter Strzok defended anti-Trump texts he sent to a colleague as he helped lead both investigations. Strzok defiantly fought with angry Republican lawmakers in a riveting hearing that featured Strzok reading aloud from his sometimes-lewd texts, and Democrats and Republicans openly yelling at each other.
New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, said as he walked into the Comey interview that he will end the investigation when he is expected to take over the panel in January.
“This is a waste of time to start with,” Nadler said. “The entire purpose of this investigation is to cast aspersions on the real investigation … there is no evidence whatsoever of bias at the FBI or any of this other nonsense.”
Comey, who has testified publicly on Capitol Hill about both the Clinton and Russia investigations, balked at the subpoena because he said committees were prone to selectively reveal information for political purposes.
“Don’t do it in a dark corner and don’t do it in a way where all you do is leak information,” said Comey’s attorney, David Kelley.
The Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Virginia Rep. Robert Goodlatte, decried Comey’s use of “baseless litigation” and called it an “attempt to run out the clock on this Congress,” a reference to the few weeks left before Democrats take control. Both Goodlatte and South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the oversight panel, are also retiring at the end of the year.
After the court fight was resolved, Goodlatte said a transcript will be released “as soon as possible after the interview, in the name of our combined desire for transparency.”
A report released this June from the Justice Department’s internal watchdog said Comey was “insubordinate” in his handling of the Clinton email investigation in the final months of the 2016 campaign. But it also found there was no evidence that Comey’s or the department’s final conclusions were motivated by political bias toward either candidate.
The report said the former FBI director, who announced in July 2016 that Clinton had been “extremely careless” with classified material but would not be charged with any crime, repeatedly departed from normal Justice Department protocol. Yet it did not second-guess his conclusion that Clinton should not have been prosecuted, despite assertions by Trump and his supporters that anyone less politically connected would have been charged.