Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton gave us “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” James Comey has now given us it depends what the meaning of “vindicated” is.
The former FBI director sat down with Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday over the weekend, and it didn’t go well. Wallace repeatedly pressed Comey on critical findings in the Horowitz IG report, and Comey shimmied and dodged, in a master class in slipperiness and evasion.
To this point, Comey has tended to get away with a lot in media interviews, for several reasons — he has known more about the investigations in question than anyone interviewing him; not much objective, uncontested information about those matters was publicly available; and his interviewers tended to be sympathetic to the point, at times, of sycophancy.
All of these advantages were eroded or nonexistent on Sunday. The Horowitz report has dumped a prodigious amount of material about the investigations out into the public. While Chris Wallace obviously isn’t a law-enforcement professional, he knows the factual record and, as one of the best interviewers on TV, was relentless, yet fair in grilling Comey.
It’s important to give credit to Comey for at least admitting that his previous fulsome statements defending the FISA process were wrong. He’s also on strong ground pushing back against the over-the-top charges against the FBI by the president and his defenders, often put in absurdly inflammatory terms. (Trump just the other day referred to former FBI officials as “scum.”)
But throughout the interview, Comey sought to minimize what had gone wrong in 2016, fighting a rearguard action on behalf of a position no longer worthy of defense.
Off the bat, Wallace juxtaposed Comey’s claim that the IG report was a vindication with Michael Horowitz’s congressional testimony that no one who had anything to do with the FBI’s handling of the investigation should feel vindicated.
Hence, Comey’s posture, “Well, maybe it turns upon how we understand the word.”
He relied repeatedly on such mincing distinctions. Questioned how he can square his past statement that the Steele dossier was “part of a broader mosaic of facts” supporting the Carter Page FISA application with Horowitz’s finding that it was “central and essential” in deciding to seek the FISA order, Comey said there was no contradiction.
This is absurd. It’s true that the application literally had other things in it. But Comey’s “mosaic” characterization clearly minimized the role of the dossier, whereas the Horowitz report finds that the FISA application “relied entirely” on information from the Steele reports regarding Carter Page’s alleged coordination with the Russians. The report also notes that Justice Department officials “accepted the FBI’s decision to move forward with the application, based substantially on the Steele information.”
As for the Steele dossier itself, Comey rejected Wallace’s statement that the FBI had concluded early in 2017 that it was “bunk.” According to Comey, “they didn’t conclude the reporting from Steele was bunk; they concluded there were significant questions about the reliability of some of the sub-source reporting.”
Oh. In other words, Comey is trying to say the reporting wasn’t bunk, just its underlying sources. How does this make any sense? Comey’s right, by the way, that the FBI didn’t dismiss the accuracy of the Steele dossier, although this isn’t a point in the agency’s favor. According to Horowitz, the CIA and FBI argued about what weight to give the dossier, and the CIA, in the words of an FBI official, considered it on the level of “Internet rumor.” Not only did the FBI put undue credence in it; the agency kept key information undermining its contentions from the FISA court.
In this connection, Comey pushed back against a Wallace question about an FBI attorney changing a document to hide Carter Page’s exculpatory, cooperative relationship with the CIA by saying that Horowitz didn’t find “misconduct by any FBI people.” When Wallace pointed out that the attorney, Kevin Clinesmith, has been referred for possible prosecution, Comey replied, “That’s not been resolved,” as if it can’t be misconduct unless and until Clinesmith is charged and found guilty of a crime.
Comey danced around Horowitz’s statement in congressional testimony, cited by Wallace, that the explanation for the FBI’s conduct is either incompetence or intentionality. Comey replied that Horowitz didn’t “conclude” it was intentional, which is correct but evades the import of the inspector general saying that it indeed might have been intentional. (Comey takes great umbrage at Bill Barr making the same point as Horowitz, although in starker terms.)
The former FBI director puts great weight on yet another distinction that is laughable by any reasonable standard. He says that the Trump campaign wasn’t being investigated, just four people associated with it. But this wasn’t a coincidence. It wasn’t as though they were all under investigation for disparate, random things. The FBI was probing whether they were conspiring with Russia over the 2016 election. To pretend this had nothing to do with the campaign is completely ridiculous.
In sum, based on his performance with Chris Wallace, it’s safe to doubt the reliability of James Comey’s definition of “vindicated.”