Several lawmakers and former federal prosecutors say recent White House attacks on the credibility of fired FBI Director James Comey raise serious questions about whether it is attempting to discredit him as a possible grand jury witness in the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 campaign.
At the very least, they said the assaults on Comey by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders were out of bounds, given the ongoing federal investigation into possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia to try and win the election.
“You now have the loudest mouthpiece in the country perhaps, short of the president’s own mouth, the official communications person of the president of the United States, repeatedly disparaging an individual who is very likely to be a witness in grand jury proceedings,” said Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. “So I think that’s put up a flag.”
Whitehouse, a former U.S. attorney, is the top Democrat on a Senate Judiciary subcommittee looking into Russian meddling in the election. It’s one of several congressional panels conducting similar inquiries, in addition to a criminal investigation spearheaded by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, and overseen by the Department of Justice.
Whitehouse and others said Sanders’ comments may have gone beyond efforts to undermine Comey’s credibility, crossing into the realm of possible obstruction of the investigation: “Why do these guys keep doing stuff that looks like they are inviting obstruction of justice charges?”
The issue arose last week when Sanders responded to questions following an interview with former White House strategist Steve Bannon on 60 Minutes. In the interview, Bannon called Trump’s decision to sack the FBI director over the Russia investigation the biggest mistake in “modern political history” because it led to the appointment of Mueller.
Asked about Comey in press briefings on three consecutive days, Sanders accused him of possibly breaking the law, saying he had “politicized” the probe into Hillary Clinton’s emails, misled Congress in his testimony about the investigation and “leaked privileged government information.”
She was referring to a memo that Comey penned in February outlining how Trump had asked him to squelch an investigation into Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser, one day after Flynn was forced to resign because, the White House said, Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.
“I hope you can let this go,” the president told Comey, according to the memo.
After Trump fired Comey in May, the ousted FBI director gave the memo to a friend and former colleague, who shared it with The New York Times.
The memo did not contain classified information, but the press secretary questioned whether the information was protected and whether he wrote it on a government computer.
“His actions were improper and likely could have been illegal,” she said.
Sanders also at several points during the briefings seemed to imply that the Justice Department should look into Comey’s actions. Asked if the president wanted the department to investigate, she said, “That's not the president's role. That’s the job of the Department of Justice, and something they should certainly look at….But I'm not here to ever direct DOJ into actions that they should take.”
David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor, said “her intent here is to influence the Department of Justice in their ongoing investigation using undue influence to impede and misdirect.”
He said it was inappropriate for Sanders to “keep raising doubts of credibility of a potential witness who...may in fact, be testifying against her boss and to encourage that department to bring charges.”
John Joseph, who spent two decades as an assistant U.S. attorney in both the criminal and civil divisions of the Justice Department, said, he has never experienced having a White House official, whether a press secretary or the president himself, comment “or put his thumb on scale. Quite the opposite. It always seemed there was no comment until the case was resolved."
A White House spokesman said suggestions that it was interfering with the investigations were “baseless.”
“Director Comey has already testified at a public hearing in connection with which the president declined to invoke executive privilege,” said Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah. “Months later, when asked about the president’s decision to fire James Comey, the White House appropriately pointed out that he leaked confidential information, politicized a high-profile criminal investigation, and violated both his personnel and nondisclosure agreements, all events which vindicate the president’s decision. These are among the reasons why the Senate Judiciary Committee has been investigating Comey’s actions. The White House has not and will not offer a legal opinion on his conduct. In fact, to the contrary, the White House has deferred any and all legal questions regarding Director Comey to the Department of Justice.”
Comey’s interactions with Trump over the Russia inquiry appear to be in Mueller’s crosshairs. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that his team has asked the White House for all documents related to his firing and how it dealt with a warning from the Justice Department as early as January that Flynn was under investigation.
When Trump fired Comey, the initial reason given by White House officials was that it was based on the recommendations of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But that was soon undercut when Trump said in an NBC interview that he had already decided to fire him before that. Another justification had been that Comey had lost the confidence of the bureau. But Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe told the Senate Intelligence Committee that just the opposite was true.
Trump also said during an Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak and Russian Ambassador Sergei Lavrov: “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”