James Comey may have misled senators on May 3, when he testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he had never been an anonymous source in news reports related to the Russia investigation.
By that time, he had already leaked several private conversations he had with President Trump to his friend Benjamin Wittes, editor-in-chief of the blog Lawfare and former editorial writer for the Washington Post.
Wittes wrote in a piece on May 18, only nine days after Comey was fired, that the former FBI director had shared those conversations “over the previous few months.” He wrote:
Comey never told me the details of the dinner meeting; I don’t think I even knew that there had been a meeting over dinner until I learned it from the Times story. But he did tell me in general terms that early on, Trump had ‘asked for loyalty’ and that Comey had promised him only honesty. He also told me that Trump was perceptibly uncomfortable with this answer.
Wittes also wrote that he had lunch with Comey on March 27 and that they discussed a phone call that Trump had made to him earlier in the day.
Wittes denied those conversations were leaks but were “just conversations between friends, the contents of which one friend is now disclosing.”
However, a leak is the release of unauthorized information, according to a definition by George Washington University professor and legal scholar Jonathan Turley. There is no condition that the information has to be published or distributed via physical memo.
And Wittes is arguably a member of the news media. In January, Wittes published a piece on Comey in Lawfare, and he writes and publishes pieces regularly.
It would not have been unreasonable for Comey to think Wittes could publish a piece on their conversations in the future — which is exactly what happened.
Wittes not only wrote about the “loyalty” conversation with Trump in his May 18 blog post titled “What James Comey Told Me About Donald Trump,” but he wrote about contacting the New York Times as a source to share what Comey had told him. In a BuzzFeed interview, he also discussed contacting the New York Times.
The fact that Wittes did so only after Comey was fired does not change the fact that Comey shared his communications with Trump while he was still FBI director.
Comey’s leaking while still FBI director appears to have extended beyond Wittes.
Comey told senators on June 8 that he decided on May 15 to release his memos of his conversations with Trump to friend Daniel Richman so that he could leak them to the media to prompt a special counsel.
But that does not explain who leaked to the New York Times the conversation about the “loyalty request” on May 11 — four days before Comey said he gave Richman memos of the conversation to leak to media outlets.
That Times story cited “associates,” or “two people who have heard” Comey’s account of the dinner and agreed to keep it quiet while Comey was director.
The Associated Press reported that a day before the New York Times story broke, Comey friend Richman had commented to the AP that the president had removed “somebody unwilling to pledge absolute loyalty to him.”
From those reports, it appears that Comey told both Wittes and Richman about the conversations while he was FBI director, potentially for the purpose of later leaking to the media.
Despite the leaking, Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 3, six days before he was fired, that he had “never” been an anonymous news source on “matters relating to” the investigation on the Trump campaign.
Here is a transcript of an exchange between Comey and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) on May 3:
GRASSLEY: Director Comey, have you ever been an anonymous source in news reports about matters relating to the Trump investigation or the Clinton investigation?
GRASSLEY: …have you ever authorized someone else at the FBI to be an anonymous source in news reports about the Trump investigation or the Clinton investigation?
GRASSLEY: Has any classified information relating to President Trump or his associates been declassified and shared with the media?
COMEY: Not to my knowledge.
What Comey didn’t say was that he had by then already discussed confidential conversations with the president to “friends” — who would later write about those conversations or act as conduits to the media.
Comey also ironically testified that leaks are “always a problem:”
GRASSLEY: You testified before the House Intelligence Committee that a lot of classified matters have ended up in the media recently. Without getting into any particular article, I want to emphasize that, without getting into any particular article, are there any leaks of classified information relating to Mr. Trump or his associates?
COMEY: I don’t want to answer that question, Senator, for reasons I think you know. There have been a variety of leaks — leaks are always a problem, but especially in the last three to six months.
Comey admitted later to the Senate intelligence committee on June 8 that he wrote his memos in a way so that they would not be classified. He said he did that so the memos could be shared more easily among investigators and within the government.
Yet, instead of giving the memos to investigators, he gave them to a friend to leak to the media first, prompting Senate intelligence committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) to say he hoped to get them at some point.
WARNER: I found it very interesting that, that in the memo that you wrote after this February 14th pull-aside, you made clear that you wrote that memo in a way that was unclassified. If you affirmatively made the decision to write a memo that was unclassified, was that because you felt at some point, the facts of that meeting would have to come clean and come clear, and actually be able to be cleared in a way that could be shared with the American people?
COMEY: Well, I remember thinking, this is a very disturbing development, really important to our work. I need to document it and preserve it in a way, and this committee gets this, but sometimes when things are classified, it tangled them up.
If I write it such a way that doesn’t include anything of a classification, that would make it easier for to us discuss within the FBI and the government, and to hold onto it in a way that makes it accessible to us.
WARNER: Well again it’s our hope particularly since you are a pretty knowledgeable guy and wrote this in a way that it was unqualified this committee will get access that unclassified document. I this I it will be important to our investigation.
President Trump’s legal team is now preparing to file complaints against former FBI Director Comey, as early as next week, with the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General and the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to a source close to the team.
Their case against Comey may include conversations Comey had with Wittes and Richman, among other “friends.”
Trump attorney Marc Kasowitz has alleged that Comey’s leaks of privileged information “began no later than March 2017, when friends of Mr. Comey have stated he disclosed to them the conversations he had with the President during their January 27, 2017, dinner and February 14, 2017, White House meeting.”
It’s not clear what consequences Comey might face for sharing those conversations with Wittes and Richman, but legal scholars say that leaking the physical memos recalling those conversations has put him in hot water.
While Comey has said he considered the memos his own personal documents, Turley has argued that the memos are FBI property, and that Comey violated federal laws by releasing them without informing the Justice Department.
On June 12, he wrote in the Hill:
These were documents prepared on an FBI computer addressing a highly sensitive investigation on facts that he considered material to that investigation. Indeed, he conveyed that information confidentially to his top aides and later said that he wanted the information to be given to the special counsel because it was important to the investigation.
The DOJ IG already has one review of Comey open on his handling of the Clinton email investigation and whether the new complaints will lead to an expansion of that review, a new review, or an investigation is unclear.
A spokesman for the DOJ IG told Breitbart News that it would depend on the “scope” of the review or investigation, and any public acknowledgment would depend on whether there is “intense public interest.”
Grassley has also indicated that he will follow up on whether there are ongoing investigations into leaks from the FBI. His office did not respond to several inquiries as to where that stands.