Deputy attorney general summarizes what he called ‘longstanding concerns’ over Comey’s handling of FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server
The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that he stood by a memo he wrote which was used to fire the FBI director, James Comey, insisting: “I wrote it. I believe it. I stand by it.”
During a pair of separate briefings with House and Senate lawmakers this week, Rosenstein said that Donald Trump had resolved to fire Comey before he produced the memo.
But in his statement, made public on Friday after he briefed House lawmakers, Rosenstein summarized what he called “longstanding concerns” over Comey’s handling of the agency’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server.
And turning to the day in July when Comey held a press conference about the Clinton emails, Rosenstein said: “I thought the July 5 press conference was profoundly wrong and unfair both to the Department of Justice and secretary Clinton.”
Rosenstein said he had learned about Trump’s intention to fire Comey the day before it happened, and believed it was an appropriate course of action, telling Congress: “Notwithstanding my personal affection for Director Comey, I thought it was appropriate to seek a new leader.”
The White House had initially said Comey was fired based upon the recommendation from Rosenstein, but that explanation was exposed as artifice by Trump himself, who gave an interview soon afterwards, citing the “Russia thing” as his chief concern.
The statement comes after new details emerged about Comey’s attempts to keep the president at arm’s length.
In one instance, according to an account by one of Comey’s friends, the FBI director, wearing a dark blue suit, attempted to blend in “like a chameleon” to the White House Blue Room drapes to avoid the president during a January ceremony.
But Trump spotted the 6ft 8in FBI director and beckoned for him.
Comey was disgusted by the encounter and attempts by the president to court his loyalty, said Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution fellow, who described the encounter in the New York Times and wrote about it on LawFareBlog.com.
“He regarded the episode as a physical attempt to show closeness and warmth in a fashion calculated to compromise him before Democrats who already mistrusted him,” Wittes wrote in the blogpost.
The event was the Inaugural Law Enforcement Officers and First Responders Reception on 22 January. In footage of the event, Trump quips, “He’s become more famous than me,” a reference to Comey’s decision to renew his agency’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server 11 days before the 2016 presidential election. Democrats, including Clinton, have faulted Comey for tipping the election in Trump’s favor.
Walking toward Trump, Comey pre-emptively extended his arm for a handshake but the president pulled Comey, rigid and uncomfortable, in for a hug.
Wittes said Comey was deeply uncomfortable with Trump’s attempts to establish a relationship with the FBI director, who was leading the agency’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the US election, including possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
According to the New York Times, Trump asked Comey to pledge his loyalty to him during a dinner at the White House. At an Oval Office meeting, Trump allegedly sought to persuade Comey to shut down an investigation into the president’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, according to contemporaneous memos that Comey kept and which were reported by the Times. Trump again denied this during a press conference on Thursday. “No, no,” he told reporters.
In response to the news story, Philippe Reines, a former Clinton adviser who went to great lengths to impersonate Trump for the Democratic nominee’s presidential debate prep, shared a video on Friday of Clinton practicing how to avoid an “unwanted Trump hug”. In the video, dated 24 September, Reines as Trump walks toward Clinton with his armed stretched for a hug. Clinton offers a high five. But Reines holds her hand and tries to wrap her in a hug as Clinton, laughing, tries to wriggle free.
Not easy to avoid the unwanted Trump hug, sometimes it even takes practice...— Philippe Reines (@PhilippeReines) May 19, 2017
A favorite moment from debate prep (9/24/16): pic.twitter.com/JAAHaqKFoa
Modern FBI directors have taken pains to inoculate the agency from politics and keep distance between the agency and the presidents they serve. Comey refused to play basketball with Barack Obama because he believed it create the appearance of coziness.
In public testimony before the Senate judiciary committee earlier this month, Comey said: “It makes me mildly nauseous to think we might have had some impact on the election. But honestly, I wouldn’t change the decision.”
Comey told Wittes that the White House repeatedly failed to follow ethical guidelines outlined by the Department of Justice that stipulates the president should have limited contact with the FBI director.
Wittes recalled another incident that he said particularly bothered Comey. The director was about to board a helicopter in late March when his phone rang. The White House was on the line and said the president wanted to speak to him.
“Figuring there must be something urgent going on, he delayed his flight to take the call. To his surprise, the president just wanted to chitchat,” Wittes wrote.
He continued: “What bothered Comey was twofold – the fact that the conversation happened at all (why was Trump calling him to exchange pleasantries?) and the fact that there was an undercurrent of Trump’s trying to get him to kiss the ring.”
Wittes said Comey finally believed he had succeeded in “training” the White House to follow proper protocol when reaching out to the FBI director. But weeks later, Trump fired Comey. The White House offered a series of shifting rationales for the firing, ultimately settling on the notion that Trump had intended to dismiss him since he took office.
On Wednesday, the justice department appointed a special counsel, Robert Mueller, Comey’s predecessor at the FBI, to lead the Russia investigation.