Former FBI Director James Comey said Tuesday that Attorney General William Barr deserves “the benefit of the doubt” when it comes to transparency about the special counsel investigation, but at the same time he questioned Barr’s decision on whether President Donald Trump had committed obstruction of justice.
“Bill Barr, our attorney general, deserves the benefit of the doubt,” Comey told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
“Give him a chance to show us what he feels like he can’t show us. I have to imagine that former (FBI Director Robert) Mueller wrote the report with an eye towards it being public some day, so I can’t imagine a lot needs to be cut out of it. But let’s wait and see. The attorney general deserves that chance.”
Comey’s comments came in the wake of the conclusion of the special counsel investigation. A major leg of the investigation, according to a brief summary of Mueller’s report by Barr, was dedicated to the potential that Trump had obstructed justice.
While Comey advised patience and a degree of faith in Barr’s release of the report, he questioned the attorney general’s reasoning on obstruction.
“The attorney general’s letter doesn’t make sense in light of my experience,” Comey said. “Thousands of people are prosecuted in this country every year for trying to obstruct an investigation where the underlying thing that was being investigated doesn’t end up proven.”
In his four-page summary released last month, Barr said Mueller left the matter open and that both Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had concluded the evidence from Mueller’s investigation was “not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” In his letter, Barr quoted from Mueller’s report to note that “the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference.”
Breaking with Barr, Comey stressed the importance of pursuing obstruction cases even when the underlying crime isn’t proven or charged. He pointed to the criminal charges he brought against lifestyle entrepreneur Martha Stewart in the early 2000s.
“People obstruct to avoid embarrassment, to protect family and friends, to protect businesses, because they’re worried the investigators might find something out,” Comey said. “Martha Stewart went to jail for lying about an investigation. She wasn’t convicted of insider trading. Bringing those kind of obstruction cases are really important, because you’d create an incentive to obstruct (if you didn’t).”
But again, Comey said he did not want to “prejudge” the finding entirely, and that he would wait to “see the work.”
Trump’s decision to fire Comey precipitated Mueller’s appointment nearly two years ago, and the former FBI director has been outspoken about what he said were attempts by the President to influence an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, among other things.
For his part, Trump has branded Comey a liar and made him a regular target of criticism throughout the investigation.
Comey has called for the full release of Mueller’s report, although the Trump administration has yet to provide Mueller’s findings beyond Barr’s letter.
Barr said on Friday that he expected to release a redacted version of Mueller’s nearly 400-page report this month.
Comey defends choice on Clinton investigation
Many people, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have criticized Comey at length for his decisions in regard to the FBI investigation into her email practices while secretary of state.
Asked by Amanpour if he thought he might be responsible for Trump’s election or if the prospect kept him up at night, Comey said, “Sure.”
“And I hope someday somebody proves that what we did was irrelevant,” he said.
Nevertheless, Comey continued to defend his choices, while saying he understood that “good people can see this differently.”
“My view and the view of my team was we cannot conceal from the American people that the investigation we told them and fought to tell them is done, is done, is done, is not done,” he said.
Defends FBI, warns on Russia
Comey said the close of the Mueller report should give pause to Trump and his supporters, who had railed against the investigators and the FBI throughout the special counsel probe.
He called on them to “take a look in the mirror” and see what happened: that the investigation apparently “reached a conclusion that the President is happy with.”
“Just don’t move on from that,” Comey said. “Your President tried to burn down the Department of Justice and the FBI, and that matters.”
He also said that while he did not know what the special counsel report said in regard to a continuing threat from Russia and future US elections, he believed Russia would attempt to interfere again.
“Look,” Comey said, “Russia succeeded in 2016 beyond its wildest dreams in its effort to damage our democracy, especially – they’ll be back – especially, given that the President not only has not criticized their effort, he’s denied it.”
CNN’s Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.