The tweet that got James Comey to go to the press

Story highlights

  • A Columbia law prof leaked information from Comey's memo to the press
  • Comey was asked by Sen. Susan Collins if he shared the memos with anyone outside of the Justice Department

Washington (CNN)Fired FBI Director James Comey saw a tweet from President Donald Trump and made a decision that will have untold ramifications.

"James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!" Trump tweeted on the morning of May 12.
It was that tweet, Comey told the Senate intelligence committee Thursday, that spurred him to leak contents of his memos documenting interactions with the President to the press.
    "The President tweeted on Friday, after I got fired, that I better hope there's not tapes," Comey said. "I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday night, because it didn't dawn on me originally, that there might be corroboration for our conversation, there might be a tape."
    Comey, who wrote memos after his meetings with Trump, had shared the documents with fellow FBI officials. Asked during the Senate hearing if he shared the memos elsewhere, Comey explained he asked a "good friend" who is a "professor at Columbia law school" to be an intermediary with the press.
    "My judgment was I needed to get that out into the public square. So I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter," Comey said.
    "I didn't do it myself for a variety of reasons, but I asked him to because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel, so I asked a close friend of mine to do it," he said.

    The go-between

    Daniel C. Richman, a close Comey adviser and former federal prosecutor, confirmed to CNN in an email that he was the friend Comey was referencing in his testimony.
    During the hearing, Comey was asked specifically if the "friend" he referred to was journalist Benjamin Wittes, who is also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.
    Wittes was contributing to a live blog when Comey told lawmakers that Wittes was not used as a go-between to share the information with the media and commented on Richman's role in the process.
    "Dan is an exceptionally fine person. He and Jim have been close friends for many years. There is nothing illegal, improper or dishonorable about what he did in this instance," Wittes said in a post on the LawFare blog once news that Richman had confirmed he was the individual referenced by Comey.
    "He and Comey are now acknowledging his hand in the story in question and the role he played. So it's not even an anonymous leak in any sense that a normal person would understand the term," he added.
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    Trump lawyer slams leak

    Trump's outside counsel, Marc Kasowitz, slammed Comey over the leak.
    "Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he leaked to friends his purported memos of these privileged conversations, one of which he testified was classified," Kasowitz said at a news conference. "He also testified that immediately after he was terminated, he authorized his friends to leak the contents of these memos to the press in order to 'prompt the appointment of a special counsel.'"
    He added, "We will leave it the appropriate authorities to determine whether these leaks should be investigated along with all those others being investigated."
    Kasowitz did not take any questions.
    The reporter who wrote the first "Comey memo" story, Michael Schmidt of The New York Times, told CNN's Brian Stelter, "I'm going to decline to comment" on any interactions with Richman.
    Schmidt's story was attributed to "two people who read the memo."
    Despite being unusual, Comey's revelation that he asked Richman to share the content of the memos with the media in order to prompt the appointment of special counsel is unlikely to pose a legal issue, according to CNN legal analyst and University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck.
    "It's not generally illegal for former government employees -- or their friends -- to disclose internal government memos without appropriate authorization," Vladeck said. "There is no legal blowback here."
    "There are exceptions, including cases in which the memos involve 'information relating to the national defense,' which might trigger the Espionage Act, or in which the disclosure of the memos deprives the government of a 'thing of value,' which might trigger the federal conversion-of-property statute," he noted.
    "And it may well be a violation of a government employee's contract or non-disclosure agreement to release such memos. But the sanctions there are administrative -- and couldn't run to a former government employee or, in Richman's case, a non-government employee," Vladeck said.
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