“I CAN’T ANSWER THAT QUESTION”
by Sharon Rondeau
Over the last 18 months, Comey and a number of other former FBI high-ranking employees have been deposed and/or interviewed by congressional committees as to their actions in the months preceding the 2016 presidential election. The transcript was released by the Oversight Committee on Tuesday afternoon, almost exactly 24 hours after Comey emerged following an approximate six-hour session with lawmakers.
Since Trump took office on January 20, 2017, more than 20 Justice Department and FBI officials have resigned, been fired or demoted. Comey was fired on May 9, 2017; his deputy, Andrew McCabe was fired in March of this year; and the former second-in-command of the counterintelligence unit, Peter Strozk, was fired in August, and his former colleague, FBI Counsel Lisa Page, resigned in May.
In 2016 and 2017, Strzok and Page exchanged thousands of politically-charged texts which culminated in their removal from the “Russia collusion” investigation now led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Page, Strzok, McCabe and two others were consequently referred to the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) for conduct reviews.
As with the previous question-and-answer period on December 7, FBI counsel was present to advise Comey as to whether or not he could respond to certain questions which might involve classified information. The same procedure was used when Strzok testified to the same two congressional committees publicly last summer shortly before he was terminated.
The initial reference to Flynn’s possibly having been under investigation is on page 11 of the transcript, when Comey, responding to a question from Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy about a private dinner Comey and Trump had on January 27, 2017, recounted that Trump had asked, “Do you have a FISA order on Mike Flynn?”
Explaining that a question such as that should “be asked and answered through established channels,” Comey said he then “answered his question,” although he did not say in what manner, and Gowdy did not press him on it.
Former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who, like Flynn, pleaded “guilty” to lying to FBI agents in the course of its counterintelligence probe into the Trump campaign, has recently claimed that the FBI obtained a warrant in 2016 under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to spy on Flynn.
On July 8, 2016, Flynn, a former Democrat, was reported by Politico to have been a possible running mate to Republican candidate Donald Trump in addition to serving as a campaign surrogate. Of his background, the article reported, “Flynn held some of the top military intelligence positions over the course of his 33-year military career. He served as the director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East; the NATO mission in Afghanistan; and the Joint Special Operations Command — culminating in his stint as director of the DIA” (Defense Intelligence Agency).
In recent weeks, Papadopoulos has urged Trump to declassify remaining “FISA” documentation gleaned from surveillance against himself and three others during the 2016 presidential campaign cycle. One of those is Carter Page, a short-term Trump foreign-policy adviser whose “FISA” warrant applications were released in late July this year, although with heavily-redacted sections.
The others, Papadopoulos has said, were former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and Flynn.
A number of congressional Republicans, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, have called upon Trump to release the documents as he had promised to do in September before changing his mind and submitting them to the Justice Department’s inspector general for review.
Prior to spending 12 days in prison as part of his sentence between November 26 and December 7, Papadopoulos claimed in a number of media interviews that he was “framed in many ways” and that had “exculpatory” information been provided to him by the FBI at the time of his interviews with agents, he would not have pleaded “guilty.”
In early November, Papadopoulos told radio host Dan Bongino that in 2016, he was approached by a half-dozen unknown individuals with promises of connections to valuable overseas contacts in the energy business in which he was engaged at the time. At the first of those meetings in March of that year, Papadopoulos said, Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud told him, unsolicited, that certain “Russians” possessed derogatory information on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
That conversation, and one which followed with then-Australian ambassador to the UK Alexander Downer in early May, reportedly became the catalyst for the FBI’s launch of the “Crossfire Hurricane” counterintelligence operation into the Trump campaign after Downer told the FBI that Papadopoulos claimed to him that the Russians had Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Papadopoulos has said he does not recall mentioning “emails” when he spoke with Downer at the Kensington Wine Gardens in London that evening.
Over the last six weeks or more, Papadopoulos has reported that Mifsud’s attorney, Stephan Roh of London, has said that his client was working for the FBI when he approached Papadopoulos and that Roh is attempting to arrange for Mifsud to testify to a Senate committee.
Earlier on Tuesday, Papadopoulos tweeted, “Going to be a massive bombshell when my FISA warrant is declassified!”
On Monday, Papadopoulos tweeted:
To the public’s knowledge, the FBI has never investigated a presidential campaign for possible “collusion,” as was been pursued by the FBI into the 2016 Trump operation.
Mueller’s probe has been two-pronged in focusing on any “collusion” between Russian operatives and members of the Trump campaign and the extent to which any Russians had attempted to influence the 2016 U.S. elections. Although three dozen indictments have been proffered and several “guilty” pleas reached, no one has been charged with “collusion.”
Because of his background, Flynn reportedly expected and acknowledged to the FBI agents who interviewed him on January 24, 2017 that his conversations with Kislyak were captured by the U.S. government’s monitoring of the communications of foreign-government agents.
FBI reports released on Friday and Monday depict two agents, one of whom was Strzok, interviewing Flynn informally on January 24, 2017, reportedly after McCabe made the decision not to arrange the session by going through the White House counsel’s office, as Comey admitted in a recent public interview is customary.
On December 1, 2017, Flynn entered a “guilty” plea of lying to the FBI, although one of the “302” reports states that Strzok and the second agent did not believe Flynn was attempting to be deceptive.
A politically-motivated firestorm ensued over Flynn’s sentencing hearing, held at 11:00 a.m. Tuesday, which culminated in an indefinite delay and the scheduling of a status hearing for March due to Flynn’s continued “cooperation” with the Special Counsel’s office.
At the bottom of page 50 of the transcript, Gowdy is noted to have asked Comey, “Am I mischaracterizing prior testimony by saying that the Bureau was about to wrap up its Michael Flynn investigation at the time this conversation with the Russian Ambassador took place?”
Comey responded with, “I don’t think that’s one I can answer. In other words, I think that calls for an answer that’s still classified. And I’ll consult with the FBI. If they tell me it’s not, I’m happy to tell you later. ” Gowdy responded, “Okay,” after which there was an off-the-record conversation.
The top of page 51 reads:
On page 53, Comey divulged that regarding Trump, “as I understand it, special counsel has told Mr. Trump he is the subject of their investigation.”
Update, 8:35 p.m.: As this story went to press Papadopoulos tweeted: