Sometime soon the abruptly fired man who first announced that the FBI was investigating whether Donald Trump’s campaign cooperated in Russian interference in the 2016 election will meet with the man who now runs that investigation.
They won’t need much in the way of introductions.
Former FBI Director James Comey, who was fired by Trump May 9, and special counsel Robert Mueller, who was named May 17 to run the Russia probe, have pursued careers so intertwined over the past two decades that one former government official familiar with the investigation called Mueller’s appointment “Rosenstein’s revenge,” for the man who made the appointment, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
“Rosenstein’s decision to appoint Mueller without consulting the White House, Justice (Department) or Congress was clearly Rosenstein’s revenge against the use of his memo as justification for firing Comey, whom he deeply respects,” said the former official who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic.
When they meet, Mueller and Comey are expected to discuss what Comey can say in public about the events leading up to his dismissal. The Senate Intelligence Committee has said Comey is expected to testify sometime after Memorial Day.
Comey probably wants to understand what's classified and what's not as well as what's sensitive.
Barak Cohen, a former federal prosecutor who's now a partner at Perkins Coie law firm in D.C.
How closely linked are Comey and Mueller? Beyond being the two most recent directors of the FBI – Comey succeeded Mueller in the post – they’ve worked closely for years. Consider that in 2011, when President Barack Obama made the unusual request to extend Mueller’s 10-year-term as FBI director, the Senate confirmation hearing called just three witnesses beyond Mueller, and Comey was one.
“During my tenure as deputy attorney general,” Comey said, “I spoke to him almost every day.” Comey was deputy attorney general from 2003 to 2005.
“It’s fair to say that Comey has respect for Mueller both as a person and for his leadership at the bureau,” said a Comey associate who spoke anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the relationship. “I suspect that Mueller has similar respect for Comey.”
The Comey associate said he imagined that the two will work together to find a way for Comey to give detailed testimony that won’t interfere in the criminal cases Mueller might want to pursue.
One congressional Republican, Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, has even suggested that the Comey-Mueller relationship is so close that Mueller should recuse himself from the investigation he’s just been chosen to lead.
But there appears to be little chance of that happening. Instead, Barak Cohen, a former federal prosecutor who’s now a partner at Washington’s Perkins Coie law firm, said he expects the two men will go over the details of the case carefully.
“Comey probably wants to understand what’s classified and what’s not as well as what’s sensitive,” Cohen said. “Things can move fast sometimes in investigations, and Comey probably wants to be careful about what he can discuss in Congress and what he can’t. Mueller undoubtedly wants him to be careful, too. Comey probably wants to help Mueller maintain the secrecy of the investigation.”
The Comey-Mueller relationship also has had an affect on the outlook for congressional investigations in Trump and Russia that has calmed lawmakers about the prospect for the probe as they take their Memorial Day break.
When Congress took its last break, in early April to mark Easter, the investigation was in turmoil. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., had just stepped away from his committee’s investigation over an ethics issue, and the House investigation appeared stalled because of the chaos that had been leading up to his decision.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was one of several Democrats questioning that committee’s investigation. “I’ve made clear to the bipartisan leadership of the committee that I have serious concerns about this investigation,” he said at the time.
But there’s no such turmoil now. Heading into the break, the Senate intelligence committee voted unanimously to give its chairman and vice chairman, Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Mark Warner, D-Va., “blanket authority to issue subpoenas as they deem necessary.”
There is no person better suited to the responsible use of power than Bob Mueller
former FBI Director James Comey
While the committee has been issuing subpoenas, most notably to former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired in February less than a month into his term, this move is seen as an attempt to streamline the process. The full committee no longer has to meet to approve each move.
On the House side, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he’s no longer concerned about the reliability of the FBI’s probe.
“I’m confident this investigation will move forward because the new special counsel has a history of being thorough and unflinching,” Schiff said.
It is a rare moment of calm in an investigation where developments have moved so quickly they’ve been difficult to digest. Beginning with the firing of Flynn, on Feb. 13, hardly a week has gone by without some sort of Russia probe related surprise.
Flynn was fired after the Washington Post published a story reporting that Acting Attorney General Sally Yates had warned the White House just six days after Trump’s inauguration that Flynn had lied about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Then on March 2, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from involvement with the probe after it became known he too had had undeclared contacts with Kislyak.
It was on March 20 that Comey told the House Intelligence Committee that the FBI was probing possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia. Two days later, Nunes claimed he’d seen documents that seemed to back Trump’s accusations that Barack Obama had ordered wiretaps on Trump. Then Nunes stepped down from his leadership of the probe on April 6 when the House Ethics Committee announced it was investigating whether Nunes had improperly revealed classified information.
The next day Congress went on recess for two weeks.
In May, Trump fired Comey. Soon after, there were reports that Trump earlier had tried to convince Comey, and other intelligence community officials, to ease off on the Russia investigation. After private briefings on the matter, senators and representatives said it was now clear that the investigation had gone beyond counter-intelligence, and was now a criminal, meaning more serious, matter. Some said that the investigation apparently consisted of three branches, the original Russian meddling, the possibility of Trump campaign collusion, and a third one into whether the Trump administration had attempts to cover up. The Justice Department confirmed that investigating the possibility of a coverup was part of Mueller’s authority.
Then on Tuesday, May 23, former CIA Director John Brennan told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he’d helped launch the FBI’s collusion probe when intelligence showed contacts “between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign.”
“It raised questions in my mind, again, whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals,” he said.
Friday, Congress broke for a week away.
The still unscheduled meeting between Comey and Mueller is seen as the pivotal next step.
There’s little doubt about the trust Comey and Mueller share. They both played a central role in a story that has come to represent Comey’s steadfastness in the face of a president’s assertion of authority. In March, 2004, Comey was the deputy attorney general, acting as attorney general while Attorney General John Ashcroft was in the hospital with acute pancreatitis.
In that capacity, Comey rejected a request by the administration of George W. Bush to reauthorize a domestic surveillance program called “Stellar Wind.” Comey told the administration the program was illegal.
But the White House was undeterred and sent Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, and White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez to the hospital to get Ashcroft’s signature. Comey learned of the plan while he was driving home from work. The rest is Washington legend.
“I immediately called my chief of staff, told him to get as many of my people as possible to the hospital immediately,” Comey told Congress in 2007. “I hung up, called Director Mueller, with whom I had been discussing this particular matter and who had been a great help to me over that week and told him what was happening.”
Mueller’s response: “I will meet you at the hospital right now.”
After seeing the stricken Ashcroft, Comey said he “went out in the hallway, spoke to Director Mueller by phone. He was on his way. I handed the phone to the head of the security detail, and Director Mueller instructed the FBI agents present not to allow me to be removed from the room under any circumstances.”
Years later, testifying again, but on behalf of Mueller’s extension as FBI director, Comey offered praise that could well apply to the current situation.
“There is no person better suited to the responsible use of power than Bob Mueller,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I know first hand his commitment to the rule of law. He is what we wish all public servants could be. There are no politics in this decision, just as there are no politics in Bob Mueller. This is, as he is, only about doing what is best for our country.”