What, exactly, was John McCain asking James Comey?

John McCain questions James Comey sot_00000000
John McCain questions James Comey sot_00000000

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Sen. McCain's questioning confuses Comey 08:13

(CNN)The strangest moment of the nearly three-hour Senate intelligence committee hearing featuring testimony from fired FBI Director James Comey came at the very end. And it came courtesy of a somewhat-unlikely source: Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Odd because McCain isn't actually on the Senate intelligence committee. But because he is the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, he -- as well as Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking member on Armed Services -- gets ex officio status and can ask questions.
And, whoa boy, did McCain ask some questions. (At 356 seconds, he talked the second-most among all senators -- only Chairman Richard Burr used more speaking time.)
Here's the start of McCain's exchange with Comey (Note: McCain appears to mistakenly refer to Trump as Comey at one point):
    MCCAIN: "In the case of Hillary Clinton, you made the statement that there wasn't sufficient evidence to bring a suit against her, although it had been very careless in their behavior, but you did reach a conclusion in that case that it was not necessary to further pursue her, yet at the same time in the case of Mr. Comey (sic) you said that there was not enough information to make a conclusion. Tell me the difference between your conclusion as far as former Secretary Clinton is concerned and Mr. Trump."
    COMEY: "The Clinton investigation was a completed investigation that the FBI had been deeply involved in, so I had an opportunity to understand all the facts and apply those facts against the law as I understood them. This investigation was under way -- still going when I was fired. So it's nowhere near in the same place."
    MCCAIN: "But it's still ongoing."
    COMEY: "Correct. So far as I know. It was when I left."
    MCCAIN: "That investigation was going on. This investigation is going on. You reached separate conclusions."
    COMEY: "No. That one was done."
    MCCAIN: "That investigation have any involvement of Secretary Clinton or any of her associates is completed?"
    COMEY: "As of July the 5th, the FBI completed its investigative work and that's what I was announcing, what we had done and what we had found."
    MCCAIN: "Well, at least in the minds of this member, there's a whole lot of questions remaining about what went on, particularly considering the fact that as you mentioned, it's a, quote, big deal as to what went on during the campaign, so I'm glad you concluded that part of the investigation, but I think that the American people have a whole lot of questions out there, particularly since you just emphasized the role that Russia played. And obviously she was a candidate for president at the time. So she was clearly involved in this whole situation where fake news, as you just described it, is a big deal took place. You're going to have to help me out here. In other words, we're complete, the investigation of anything former Secretary Clinton had to do with the campaign is over and we don't have to worry about it anymore?"
    COMEY: " With respect to -- I'm a little confused."
    But McCain wasn't done. Here's how he closed his questioning of Comey:
    MCCAIN: "So are you aware of anything that would lead you to believe that the president or members of the administration or members of the campaign could potentially be used to coerce or blackmail the administration?"
    COMEY: "That's a subject for investigations. Not something I can comment on sitting here."
    MCCAIN: "But you reached that conclusion as far as secretary Clinton was concerned, but you're not reaching a conclusion as far as this administration is concerned. Are you aware of anything that would lead you to believe that information exists that could coerce members of the administration or blackmail the administration?"
    COMEY: "That's not a question I can answer, senator."
    Er.....
    I'll admit that I was -- and am -- as lost as Comey appeared to be as to what McCain was driving at. The two investigations -- Clinton's decision to establish a private email server and the Russians meddling in the 2016 election -- are not the same thing.
    As Comey explained to McCain, the Clinton investigation was concluded on July 5, 2016 when he announced to the country that while the former secretary of state had been "extremely careless," he was not bringing charges against her. The investigation into Russia's meddling in the election and any possible collusion with elements of the Trump campaign is still ongoing.
    Complicating things somewhat is the fact that in late October -- much to Clinton's chagrin -- Comey announced that the investigation into her email server was re-opening after a new batch of emails had been discovered on a computer belonging to Huma Abedin, a top Clinton aide, and her husband at the time Anthony Weiner. But as the FBI announced just before the election, nothing was discovered on that computer that changed the bureau's decision not to charge Clinton or any of her aides.
    McCain seemed not to get that -- whether intentionally or not. He seemed set on making clear that Comey had some sort of double standard in the investigations -- that he had gone easy on Clinton but hadn't extended that same courtesy to Trump.
    "It seemed that he investigated, he decided without the Department of Justice deciding, that there would be no reason to bring charges against then-secretary of state Clinton and at the same time -- candidate Clinton," McCain explained to reporters after the hearing. "And at the same time, the investigation continues to go on concerning President Trump and his people. I don't understand how you can say in one case there's no reasons to consider -- continue it, and he says that the Russian engagement was a big deal in his words, and I agree with him, but yet it seems a double standard."
    So, um, ok.
    Update: McCain made light of the confusion and clarified what he meant by his questions at the hearing in a statement after the hearing an in an exchange with reporters.
    Reporter to McCain: What were you getting at?
    John McCain James Comey questioning interview_00000000

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      Reporter to McCain: What were you getting at?

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    Reporter to McCain: What were you getting at? 00:49
    And here's the written statement:
    "I get the sense from Twitter that my line of questioning today went over people's heads. Maybe going forward I shouldn't stay up late watching the Diamondbacks night games.
    "What I was trying to get at was whether Mr. Comey believes that any of his interactions with the President rise to the level of obstruction of justice. In the case of Secretary Clinton's emails, Mr. Comey was willing to step beyond his role as an investigator and state his belief about what 'no reasonable prosecutor' would conclude about the evidence. I wanted Mr. Comey to apply the same approach to the key question surrounding his interactions with President Trump—whether or not the President's conduct constitutes obstruction of justice. While I missed an opportunity in today's hearing, I still believe this question is important, and I intend to submit it in writing to Mr. Comey for the record."
    In response, the Arizona baseball team tweeted: "¯\_(ツ)_/¯"