Return to Transcripts main page
Comey Grilled on Russia, Clinton During Senate Hearing. Aired 1:30-2p ET
Aired May 3, 2017 - 13:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[13:30:00] SENATOR AL FRANKEN, (D), MINNESOTA: Director Comey, to me this sounds like a clear offer from a Russian intelligence operative to collaborate with a senior official on the Trump campaign. Is that a throw-away line or an offer to help Stone in some respect? Do we know whether any further communication between Stone and Guccifer took place? And if you can't say here or can't say in -- but you could say in another classified environment, could you make that distinction?
COMEY: I definitely cannot say here. I don't think I would say in a classified environment because it calls for questions about what we're looking at and -- and how.
FRANKEN: Yes, sir.
COMEY: But I definitely can't say here.
FRANKEN: OK, well at the very least, Stone's conversation with Guccifer demonstrated once again that the Trump campaign officials were communicating with Russian operatives. It was less clear, however, is whether the Trump campaign ever provided direction to Russian operatives or were aware that specific actions were being carried out to influence the election.
For example, it has been suggested that last year, the Russians use thousands of paid trolls, human trolls. We know this and botnets to flood the Internet, particularly social media and with fake news aimed at influencing the election and favoring President Trump. I'm curious whether such actions were part of a coordinated effort. Is there any evidence that the Trump campaign assisted or directed those efforts?
COMEY: That's something that I can't answer here, but I would refer you back to what I said, it was the purpose of the investigation to understand whether there were any coordination or collusion between elements of the campaign and the Russians.
FRANKEN: Of course, and I would point out too that -- that right before the Podesta e-mails came out, that Roger Stone said its time -- its soon going to be time for Podesta's time in the barrel. And so I think there may be a little bit of a -- of there (ph) there. Before I end, I just want to -- I only have 30 seconds, so I'm -- I'm -- I want to say this. I know Senator Cornyn isn't here.
I think it's a shame that he said that Hillary yesterday, in this forum, blamed everyone but herself. She took a lot of blame on herself in -- in that forum. And I think she, when she referenced what you did on 11 days before the election, which has been the subject here that and also the Russian interference, I think she was only saying stuff that other people have said that.
I mean I don't think she was saying anything that -- that a lot, a lot of people also think had an effect on the election. So I just think it was a shame that the senator from Texas, I don't know if he meant to leave that out deliberately, but she did not blame everyone but herself.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
GRASSLEY: Say (ph), before I call on the next senator, there's two things I'd like to say. One would be for what you promised Senator Cruz about a briefing on the Garland situation that you would include any of their staff of the committee in on that briefing as well so we have a committee briefing on it as well. At least at the staff level, would you do that?
COMEY: Assuming they have the clearances for it. I don't think that's a problem at all, I'll do that.
GRASSLEY: I guess that's -- that's obvious. The second thing is, after we have two more people have a second round, before they get done, I have to go on. I want to thank you for being here, Senator Feinstein will close down the meeting.
COMEY: OK, thank you Mr. Chairman.
GRASSLEY: I think under the previous order Senator Hirono was ahead of you.
UNKNOWN: Mr. Chairman I'm happy to follow Senator Hirono.
HIRONO: Thank you. As mentioned earlier, Director in March President issued a revised refugees and visa ban executive order that suspended entry into the U.S. from six majority Muslim countries. The suspicion was this suspension was largely premised on the claim that quote more than 300 person who entered the United States are refugees are currently the subjects of counter terrorism investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, end quote. Can you provide any additional information on whether the persons under investigation are from the six countries subject to the suspension? And are these persons exclusively from the six countries subject to the suspension. And if not what other countries are represented among the population that is currently under investigation?
COMEY: I'm sure we can provide you. What I can tell you here is I think -- I think about a third of them are -- are from the six countries -- so 300. About a third of them are from the six countries. I think two thirds of those were from the seventh country Iraq that was not included. But I'll make sure my staff get to the precise numbers Senator. HIRONO: So Iraq is the only other country that was not among the six targeted countries?
COMEY: I think that's right. Obviously as you ask it I'm wondering whether I'm wrong and so I'll get you the precise numbers.
HIRONO: Thank you.
COMEY: But I -- I think it was refugees about 300 about a third from the six countries. And about two thirds from Iraq. That's my ...
HIRONO: Thank you can provide the information later, thank you very much. And can you provide additional information on the percentage of these individuals who came to the U.S. as children?
COMEY: I can't as I sit here. I'm sure we get you that information.
HIRONO: Can you check that? Thank you. And can you provide additional information on the percentage of these individuals who are radicalized after having been in our country for a long period of time? However way you describe a longer period ...
COMEY: That's a harder one because it's very hard to figure out when someone is radicalized and then when it happened. I'll ask my folks to think about what information we can get you on that. We'll do our best.
HIRONO: Yes thank you. Probably during the course of your investigation you might be able to ascertain when they became radicalized.
We -- I'm turning to the death threats against certain judges. We have an administration that challenges federal judges who disagree with President trump's views. We've seen this in the campaign and during his Presidency.
Following Judge Derrik Watson's ruling blocking the president's revised travel ban, judge Watson who sits on the Hawaii district court.
Judge Watson began receiving death threats. I understand the U.S. Marshals have primary responsibility for the protection of federal judges, but that the FBI is poised to step in if necessary. Is the FBI investigating the threats made against judge Watson?
COMEY: I believe we are. It was last week visited the Honolulu field office and got briefed on our work, again to assist the marshals in trying to understand the threats and protect the judge, so I believe we are.
HIRONO: And then in February the three 9th circuit judges who ruled against the presidents first travel ban also began receiving threats is the FBI investigating those threats?
COMEY: I don't know that one for sure. I bet we are, but I can't answer with confidence as I sit here. HIRONO: So can we say any time federal judges are threatened that the FBI would likely be involved in investigating those threats?
COMEY: Probably in most circumstances, the Marshals have the primary responsibility and in my experience they very very often ask us for assistance on our -- what information we may have some of our technical resources, they're pretty darn good but in most cases I think we offer assistance
HIRONO: And are the president's continued attacks on the judiciary emboldening individuals to make these sort of threats? We're in an environment where some people might think that it's OK to issue these kinds of threats against judges who disagree with the president.
COMEY: Yes, that's not something I think I can comment on. It concerning whenever people are directing threats at judges because their independence and insulation from influence whether fear or favor is at the core of the whole justice system, which is why we take them so seriously.
HIRONO: Yes. And so speaking of the independence of not just the judiciary but I'd like you to clarify the FBI's independence from the DOJ apparatus. Can the FBI conduct an investigation independent from the department of Justice. Or does the FBI have to disclose all it's investigations to the DOJ? And does it have to get the Attorney General's consent?
COMEY: Well we work with the Department of Justice, whether that's main justice or U.S. attorney's offices on all of our investigations.
And so we work with them and so in a legal sense we're not independent of the department of justice. We are spiritually, culturally pretty independent group and that's the way you would want tit. But yes, we work with the Department of Justice on all of our investigations.
HIRONO: So if the Attorney General or senior officials at the Department of Justice opposes a specific investigation, can they halt that FBI investigation?
COMEY: In theory yes.
HIRONO: Has it happened?
COMEY: Not in my experience. Because it would be a big deal to tell the FBI to stop doing something that -- without an appropriate purpose. I mean where oftentimes they give us opinions that we don't see a case there and so you ought to stop investing resources in it. But I'm talking about a situation where we were told to stop something for a political reason, that would be a very big deal. It's not happened in my experience.
HIRONO: Well, a number of us have called for an independent investigator or a special prosecutor to investigate the -- the Russian efforts to undermine or to interfere with our elections, as well as the Trump team's relationships with these -- these Russian efforts.
And should the Department of Justice decide that there should be such a independent investigator or a special prosecutor? And you already have an ongoing FBI instigation into these matters. How and the attorney general has already recused himself, so how would -- how would this proceed, when you have the Department of Justice conducting or assigning an independent or special prosecutor and then you're already doing investigation? How would this work?
COMEY: Our investigative team would just coordinate with a different set of prosecutors. It's as if a case was moved from one U.S. attorney's office to another, the investigative team just starts working with a different set of assistant U.S. attorneys. You don't -- you don't...
HIRONO: So the two investigations could proceed, but you would talk to each other, is that what you're describing?
COMEY: Right, its one -- its one investigation and the strength of the justice system at the federal level of the United States is, the prosecutors and the agents work together on their investigations. And so the investigators would disengage from one prosecutor and hook up to another and just continue going.
HIRONO: So in the investigations that you're currently doing on the Russian interference and the Trump team's relationship, are you coordinating with any U.S. attorney's office in these investigations?
COMEY: Yes, well -- two sets of prosecutors, the Main Justice the National Security Division and the Eastern District of Virginia U.S. Attorney's Office.
HIRONO: So should the A.G. decide to go with this special prosecutor, then you would end your engagement with these other two entities and work with the DOJ special prosecutor?
COMEY: Well, I could -- yes, potentially or it could be that in some circumstances, an attorney general will appoint someone else to oversee it and you keep the career level prosecutive team. And so to the prosecutors and the agents, there's no change except the boss is different.
HIRONO: If I could just ask one more follow-up question, so does this -- has this happened before, where you're doing an investigation and the attorney general appoints a special prosecutor to conduct the same investigation?
COMEY: It happened to me when I was in what I thought was my last job ever in the government as Deputy Attorney General and I appointed Patrick Fitzgerald, then the U.S. attorney in Chicago to oversee a very sensitive investigation involving allegations that Bush administration officials outed a CIA operative.
And so what happened is, the team of agents that had been working for the upper (ph) chain that came to me was just moved over and worked up under Patrick Fitzgerald. HIRONO: OK, thank you so it happens.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Senator. Last but far from least, Senator Blumenthal.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you, Madam Chair.
To take the analogy that you began with, I think we're at the end of a dentist visit, or toward the end of it anyway. And fortunately, there's no unlimited time that the last questioner can take.
COMEY: My dentist sometimes asks questions, too.
BLUMENTHAL: To -- to pursue the line of questioning that Senator Hirono just -- just finished, there is abundant precedent, is there not, for the appointment of a special prosecutor? In fact, there are regulations and guidelines for the appointment of a special prosecutor.
BLUMENTHAL: And that has happened frequently in the history of the Department of Justice. You mentioned one in your experience. Also, then designee Attorney General Richardson, appointed a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who then pursued the Watergate investigation, correct?
COMEY: Yes, there's been many examples of it.
BLUMENTHAL: So this would not be a earthshaking, seismic occurrence for a special prosecutor to be appointed, in fact taking your record which is one of dedication to the credibility and integrity of our criminal justice process and your families. I would think that at some point, you might recommend that there be a special prosecutor. Would that be appropriate at some point?
COMEY: It's possible. I know one of my predecessors did it, Louis Freeh did it, with respect to a Clinton administration issue about Chinese interference in election. So it's possible.
BLUMENTHAL: And I take your contention that you don't want to talk about your conversations with the current Deputy Attorney General, but my hope is that you will in fact argue forcefully and vigorously for the appointment of special prosecutor.
I think that the circumstances here are exactly parallel to the situation where you appointed Patrick Fitzpatrick and others where routinely, special prosecutors have been appointed. And I know that your recommendation may never be disclosed. But I would urge that -- that you do so. Going back to the questions that you were asked about your announcement initially, that you were terminating the investigation of Hillary Clinton. You said that the matter was one of intense public interest and therefore you were making additional comments about it. Normally there would have been no comments correct?
BLUMENTHAL: And at most, you would have said, as you did just now, there was no prosecutable case, correct?
BLUMENTHAL: And you went beyond that statement and said that she had been extremely careless I believe was the words that you used, which was an extraordinary comment. Would you agree that the investigation of the Trump campaigns potential involvement in the Russian interference is also an investigation of intense public interest?
COMEY: Yes I agree.
BLUMENTHAL: In fact, they're probably very few investigations that will be done while you're FBI director that will be of more intense public interest and my question is will you commit to explaining the results of the investigation at the time when it is concluded?
COMEY: I won't commit to it Senator, but I do commit to apply the same principles and reasoning to it. I just don't know where we'll end up so I can't commit sitting here.
BLUMENTHAL: But you would agree that as the FBI director you would need to go beyond simply saying there's no prosecutable case or there is a prosecutable case?
BLUMENTHAL: When I was US attorney many years ago, there was actually a rule in the Department of Justice that there could be no report on any grand jury matter or any investigation without permission of the Attorney General or main justice.
I don't know whether that rule still applies, but speaking more generally, do you think it's a good idea for prosecutors or yourself to be able to comment in some way to explain the results of an investigation?
COMEY: Not in general I don't. I think it's important that there be -- as there has been for a long time a recognized exception for the exceptional case.
I referred to the IRS alleged targeting investigation which was also of intense public interest and then I actually -- I had someone prepare for me a chart. The department has done it infrequently but done it a dozen or more times in the last 5, 10 years. It ought to be reserved for those extraordinary cases, but there are times where the public interest warrants it.
BLUMENTHAL: With respect to the investigation I'm going into the Trump Associates ties to the Russian meddling. Has the White House cooperated?
COMEY: With the investigation?
COMEY: That's not something I'm going to comment on. BLUMENTHAL: have you had any requests for immunity from anyone, potentially a target of that investigation?
COMEY: I have to give you the same answer Senator.
BLUMENTHAL: Would you tell this committee if there is a lack of cooperation on the part of the White House?
COMEY: I won't commit to that.
BLUMENTHAL: Isn't there again another reason for there to be a special prosecutor because who would you complain to, the Deputy Attorney General? If there were a lack of cooperation on the part of the Trump White House.
COMEY: If there was a challenge with any investigation that I couldn't resolve at the working level, I would elevate it to the Deputy Attorney General whoever was in charge of it.
BLUMENTHAL: But the Deputy Attorney General is appointed by the president, correct?
BLUMENTHAL: Isn't that a inherent conflict of interest.
COMEY: It's -- it's a consideration but also the nature of the person in the role is also very important consideration. I think we're lucky to have somebody who thinks about the Justice System, very similar to the way I do and Pat Fitzgerald does and the way you did.
BLUMENTHAL: And let me ask again to just clarify a question that Senator Hirono asked. The career prosecutors so far involved are in the National security division in Main Justice and the eastern district of Virginia United States attorney's office, correct?
BLUMENTHAL: But the decision about prosecuting would be made by their boss, I think is the word you used correct?
BLUMENTHAL: And that would probably be right now the Deputy Attorney General correct? COMEY: Correct. In a matter of a complexity and significance, the ultimate decision in practice is almost always made at the highest level in the Department which would be Rod Rosenstein.
BLUMENTHAL: And let me ask one last question unrelated. You were asked by Senator Leahy about targets of investigation. I think your comment was that there were more citizens currently under investigation for potentially terrorist violence or extremist violence than non citizens, is that correct?
COMEY: Correct. BLUMENTHAL: In terms of sources of information are there many non citizens who have provided such information?
BLUMENTHAL: And are a large number of them undocumented residents of the United States?
COMEY: I don't know what percentage. I'm sure some significant percentage are.
BLUMENTHAL: So cooperation from them is important and the fear of apprehension of roundups of mass detention would be a significant deterrent for them, would it not?
COMEY: In theory, I don't know whether we've seen an impact in practice, though. I just don't know, as I sit here.
BLUMENTHAL: Could you inquire or do some internal research to the extent it is possible and report back to us about it?
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you, Madam Chairman.
FEINSTEIN: Thank you very much, Senator.
Director, I think this concludes the hearing. Let me thank you for your ability to last for many hours, its very impressive.
And let me also thank ladies and gentlemen in the audience, many of you have been here from the very beginning. Thank you for your attention and thank you for being respectful, its very much appreciated. And the hearing is adjourned.
[13:53:16] WOLF BLOTZER, CNN: I'm Wolf Blitzer, in Washington. For nearly four hours, the director of the FBI James Comey has been in the hot seat answers Senators' questions on a wide range of issues, specifically his decision right near the end of the presidential campaign to go ahead and inform members of Congress that he was reopening -- the FBI was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton and her use of those private e-mail servers.
Let me play the exchange that has now generated a lot of commotion. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: We did not find anything that changes our view of her intent. So we're in the same place we were in July. It hasn't changed our view. And I asked them lots of questions, and I said, OK, if that's where you are, then I also have to tell Congress that we're done.
Look, this is terrible. It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had an impact on the election but, honestly, I wouldn't have changed the decision. Everyone who disagrees with me has to come back to October 28th with me and stare at this and tell me what you would do. Would you speak or would you conceal? And I could be wrong, but we honestly made a decision between those two choices, that even in hindsight, and this has been one of the world's most painful experiences, I would make the same decision. I would not conceal that on October 28th from the Congress.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Evan Perez, you're our justice correspondence. You cover the FBI. This is the first time he's gone into that kind of detail to explain why 11 days before the presidential election he said Hillary Clinton and her e-mails once again were under investigation.
[13:54:48] EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, what you saw there was the director being extremely animated and you could tell the passion with which he wanted to explain this. It's something we've heard internally at the FBI, he's been wanting to come out and say something and explain himself. He knows there's a lot of criticism about this. He said that he was mildly nauseous to think that the FBI's decision to make that public announcement, to tell members of Congress that they had essentially reopened the Clinton e-mail investigations just days before the election, that that affected the election. But he says at the end that he would not have done things differently. He said, I don't have any regrets. He said that he knew the choice was terrible, to disclose and talk about something very close to the election or something catastrophic, which is to not say something and then for it to come out thereafter. So he said he still believes he made the right decision. I think it's something that obviously won't satisfy all of the critics because, obviously, you know that at the same time that he was doing this, there was already an ongoing investigation into contacts between Russian -- suspected Russian agents and people associated with the Trump campaign. We know that that investigation is still ongoing, Wolf, and he didn't talk about this until in March when he told the members of Congress.
BLITZER: And, Gloria, it was only yesterday that Hillary Clinton once again referred to the October 28th announcement, the letters to Congress, saying the investigation was reopened. She blames that, in part, for her defeat.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And even though he went into great detail today to talk about how he clarified it, eventually before the election and they never thought they were going to get it done in time, this isn't going to satisfy Democrats. And I was just reading a tweet by Adam Schiff, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee. He said, look, the real choice was not speaker conceal. The real choice was, abide by the Department of Justice policy, which is not to get involved close to an election or violate that policy. And there is still, I think, an open question about whether he did actually violate that policy by injecting himself the way he did.
There's another interesting thing we heard today, and that is how he felt about the Department of Justice -- I mean, Attorney General Loretta Lynch meeting with Bill Clinton on the tarmac that day in what became a very fateful meeting. He called it the capper for him because he knew, then, that the Justice Department had lost its credibility on this issue, and that's how he explained the press conference he had in July telling us, of course, that he had never told Lynch what he was going to say in that press conference and what he was going to do about the Hillary Clinton e-mail situation.
BLITZER: We did hear from the FBI Director, Steven Stevanovich, that the Russians believe what they did works and they will do it again.
STEVEN STEVANOVICH, SENIOR FELLOW, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATONS: You won't get Putin to say that. Yesterday he was asked about interference and he said this is all just rumors. We know that interfering in other countries' politics is futile and it never occurred to us to do that. But there is a general view that they feel they've gotten something out of it and that their efforts generally continue. That seems to be the consensus of European intelligence services and we're seeing a lot of activity in Europe in relation to their elections.
BLITZER: We certainly are, with upcoming elections in France and Britain and elsewhere.
Phil Mudd, you spent your career in the CIA but you were also detailed to the FBI. What jumped out at you from what we heard from the FBI director?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Quickly, one of the things very little talked about, how to prevent this in the next election. That should have been a core conversation. I thought he said too much about Huma Abedin, too much about what they investigated with her after they closed the investigation. I thought he should have --
BLITZER: Why was it too much? Basically, what he said is that the FBI agents, they discovered thousands of e-mails from her to her husband, Anthony Weiner, a former U.S. congressman, including some classified e-mails that sparked a lot of interest. That's why they reopened the investigation.
MUDD: Sure. But he's got a closed investigation. He's got a U.S. citizen and he chose to talk about her in a private forum. I don't think that's appropriate for the FBI director. The investigation is closed. Don't mention people involved in it.
BORGER: He also said classified information was taken from her laptop.
BORGER: And forwarded. I mean, it was on Anthony Weiner's laptop.
BORGER: She forwarded information to Anthony Weiner's laptop. I guarantee you that's going to become a talking point for Republicans.
MUDD: Yes, exactly. He should have let it go. BLITZER: Elaborate a little. Why let it go, because all of this is
public to begin with.
MUDD: Sure, but this is the FBI director talking about an investigation where they chose not to press charges. If you chose not to press charges on the transmission of classified information from Huma Abedin to Anthony Weiner, that means you determined there was nothing worth going to the Department of Justice to prosecute. If you made that decision -- she, I think, has some claim to privacy. It's done.
BLITZER: We learned a lot today during those nearly four hours. We're going to have a lot more coming up. My colleague, Brooke Baldwin, will pick up our special coverage right now.
[14:00:03] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, thank you so much.
Hi, everyone. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for watching CNN on this Wednesday.
We are juggling --