The director of the FBI has few friends among Capitol Hill Democrats after his high-profile statements about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election. But some consider James Comey preferable to any FBI director Donald Trump would appoint, particularly in his weakened political state.
Comey is under significant political pressure. The US justice department’s internal watchdog has opened an inquiry into his decision to publicly discuss, days before the vote, an FBI investigation of Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, in violation of department regulations.
Democrats were further stunned and angered after Comey refused to confirm any FBI counterintelligence inquiry, either in public hearings or in private briefings, into Trump’s associates’ ties with Russia. Days later, Trump shook Comey’s handin a White House ceremony, which was followed by reports that Trump would retain Comey. The FBI director’s tenure runs through 2023, but is at the pleasure of the president.
There is little sign of any thaw between Comey, a Republican and Bush administration veteran whom Barack Obama appointed in 2013, and Democrats, according to multiple Capitol Hill sources.
But some are pivoting to focus on whether and how Comey’s FBI examines any Russia connections to Trump’s circles, as well as its contributions to congressional inquiries into the same subject – one of which announced an expanded remit on Wednesday.
A senior Democrat on the House judiciary committee, which oversees the FBI, pointed to the Russia-focused inquiries as a pragmatic argument for retaining Comey at the bureau.
“There may or may not be an investigation going on regarding the possible involvement of the Trump campaign with the Russians. I certainly wouldn’t want a new Trump appointee to come in and shut down any possible investigation,” said representative Jerrold Nadler.
“It would have been proper and right for him to be fired for what he did back in July or September, and for President Obama to appoint somebody else, but at this point, with a possible investigation going on, you wouldn’t want that changed by a new Trump appointee.”
Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat on both the House intelligence and judiciary committees and a former prosecutor, said it was less important to have a relationship with Comey than to ensure the “independence” of the FBI, which joined with the CIA and NSA in a public conclusion that Russia interfered in the election for Trump’s benefit.
“I have confidence he and the workforce will follow the evidence, because they did so with the role they played in the public report,” Swalwell said.
The intelligence committee on which Swalwell serves on Wednesday announced it would deepen its own inquiry into Russian hacking and propaganda in the election. Like its Senate counterpart, the panel will now examine “any intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns”, according to a joint statement from the panel chairman, Devin Nunes, a California Republican, and Adam Schiff, a California Democrat.
Conspicuously, Nunes and Schiff said they expected to be able to view intelligence documents within secured rooms the committee maintains for viewing classified information – something the CIA refused the Senate intelligence committee during its investigation into torture.
“It will not be adequate to review these documents, expected to be in the thousands of pages, at the agencies. They should be delivered to the House intelligence committee to provide members adequate time to examine their content,” the two congressmen said.
The CIA refusal to permit Senate intelligence committee investigators to view internal material on Capitol Hill proved to be a fateful decision. Senate investigators learned years into their inquiry that CIA officials had surreptitiously transgressed digital barriers established on a shared network the agency maintained for Senate staffers at a Virginia facility, leading them to remove material from the Senate and read staffers’ drafts and even emails.
“None of that can be allowed to ever happen again,” said Daniel Jones, a former FBI official and the lead Senate investigator for the torture report.
“The [House intelligence committee] is absolutely well within their rights to request that all relevant documents be produced in the committee secure spaces on Capitol Hill. And all members and the investigative staff should be provided with the necessary clearances to conduct this investigation – and that includes access to sensitive source information. Too often the intelligence committees defer to the executive branch. In this case, the committees need to stand their ground.”
Nadler, the New York Democrat on the judiciary committee, said Comey had “never shown any contrition” for his involvement in the election, which Clinton considers to have cost her the presidency.
Still, with multiple investigations under way into Trump and the Russians that place the FBI in a central position, Nadler said he thought Democrats would come to accept Comey as the best available option.
“I suspect if people think about it, it’ll be widespread, because no one trusts what Trump would do,” he said.