NEW YORK — Conflicting testimony and narratives between disgraced former FBI director James B. Comey and former attorney general Loretta E. Lynch raise serious questions not only about who is telling the truth but also about Comey potentially mischaracterizing or even fictionalizing key claims he made about President Trump and the Russia collusion story.
Last week, Lynch’s closed-door December 2018 testimony to the House Judiciary Committee was made public by Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga). At the hearing, Lynch disputed Comey’s claim that she directed him to downplay the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server by referring to what ultimately became a criminal probe as instead “a matter” during any public comments on the issue.
“I didn’t direct anyone to use specific phraseology,” Lynch stated. “When the Director asked me how to best to handle that, I said: What I have been saying is we have received a referral and we are working on the matter, working on the issue, or we have all the resources we need to handle the matter, handle the issue. So that was the suggestion that I made to him.”
Lynch maintained that she was “quite surprised that he characterized it in that way,” referring to Comey’s claim that Lynch directed him to call the investigation “a matter.”
Her denial of directing Comey to call it a matter precludes the possibility of any misunderstanding on Comey’s part. In June 2017 testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey specifically described Lynch as directing him to call the Clinton probe “a matter.”
“The attorney general had directed me not to call it ‘an investigation,’ but instead to call it ‘a matter,’ which confused me and concerned me,” Comey stated. “That was one of the bricks in the load that led me to conclude, ‘I have to step away from the department if we’re to close this case credibly.’”
In his book, “A Higher Loyalty,” Comey goes even further, detailing a conversation he claimed that he had with Lynch in which he says that she instructed him to call the investigation “a matter” – phraseology Comey viewed as aligned with Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Comey wrote in the book:
I explained that I thought we had reached a point where at my regular quarterly press roundtable, set for October 1, I should confirm we had a Clinton email investigation open, which the whole world knew anyway, but then offer no further details. Attorney General Lynch agreed that it made sense to do that.
But then she quickly added, “Call it ‘a matter.’” “Why would I do that?” I asked. “Just call it ‘a matter,’” came her answer. It occurred to me in the moment that this issue of semantics was strikingly similar to the fight the Clinton campaign had waged against The New York Times in July. Ever since then, the Clinton team had been employing a variety of euphemisms to avoid using the word “investigation.”
The attorney general seemed to be directing me to align with that Clinton campaign strategy. Her “just do it” response to my question indicated that she had no legal or procedural justification for her request, at least not one grounded in our practices or traditions. Otherwise, I assume, she would have said so.
Despite professing to be taken aback by Lynch’s purported “matter” request, Comey still acquiesced, he claims. This is the same Comey who is known for going rogue by usurping Justice Department precedent and unilaterally declaring at an unprecedented press conference that “no charges are appropriate” in the case of Clinton’s private email server. It is not the traditional role of the FBI, an investigative body, to make legal conclusions much less public pronouncements of legal decisions.
Comey explained his alleged decision to give in to Lynch and call it “a matter” thusly: “But in that moment, I decided that her request was too frivolous to take issue with, especially as my first battle with a new boss. I also was confident the press, and the public, would totally miss the distinction between a ‘matter’ and an ‘investigation’ anyway.”
The conflict between Lynch and Comey is no small matter. Comey utilized his claim that Lynch instructed him to refer to the email probe as “a matter” as part of his public justification for his infamous July 5, 2016 press conference at the height of the presidential campaign announcing that Clinton was off the hook in the email case. He said he took matters into his own hands out of concern that Lynch had conflicts of interest when it came to the Clintons.
Comey’s other justification, expressed during testimony, was Lynch’s tarmac meeting at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in which former President Bill Clinton, the husband of the FBI’s main subject in a criminal probe, boarded the attorney general’s plane and reportedly stayed there for about 20 minutes.
Comey’s possible misinterpretation of conversations or outright fictionalizing could cut to the heart of his repeated claims, echoed in his infamous memos, that he thought Trump was asking him to pledge loyalty during an in-person meeting in the Oval Office, a characterization strongly denied by the White House.
Comey has admitted to asking a friend to leak his memos to the news media in order to prompt the formation of a special counsel to investigate Trump over collusion claims.
The credibility of Comey’s memos have been questioned. Earlier this month, Breitbart News reported on major discrepancies between a story Comey told on CNN and the same story as Comey recalled it in his infamous memos purportedly memorializing his conversations with Trump.
The dispute between Lynch and Comey, meanwhile, comes on the heels of another dispute involving Comey, ex-CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper over which top Obama administration officials advocated for the infamous Christopher Steele dossier to be utilized as evidence in the Russia collusion investigation.
The argument, parts of which also includes conflicting testimony, erupted into the open earlier this month with a Brennan surrogate being quoted in the news media opposing Comey not long after Barr appointed a U.S. attorney to investigate the origins of the Russia collusion claims.
The Steele dossier was produced by the controversial Fusion GPS firm, which was paid for the dossier work by Trump’s main political opponents, namely Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) via the Perkins Coie law firm.
The fiasco was kicked into high gear after Fox News cited “sources familiar with the records” pointing to an email chain from late-2016 showing Comey allegedly telling FBI employees that it was Brennan who insisted that the anti-Trump dossier be included in a January 6, 2017 U.S. Intelligence Community report, known as the ICA, assessing Russian interference efforts.
A former CIA official, clearly defending Brennan, shot back at the assertion, instead claiming that it was Brennan and Clapper who opposed a purported push by Comey to include the dossier charges in the ICA.
“Former Director Brennan, along with former [Director of National Intelligence] James Clapper, are the ones who opposed James Comey’s recommendation that the Steele Dossier be included in the intelligence report,” the official told Fox News.
“They opposed this because the dossier was in no way used to develop the ICA,” the official added. “The intelligence analysts didn’t include it when they were doing their work because it wasn’t corroborated intelligence, therefore it wasn’t used and it wasn’t included. Brennan and Clapper prevented it from being added into the official assessment. James Comey then decided on his own to brief Trump about the document.”
The official was addressing the reported email from Comey fingering Brennan as insisting that the dossier be utilized in the ICA report on Russian interference.
Discussing the issue during a segment on Fox News, former GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy said on “The Story with Martha MacCallum” that “Comey has a better argument than Brennan, based on what I’ve seen.”
One day earlier, Gowdey stated on Fox News, “Whoever is looking into this, tell them to look into emails” from December 2016 concerning both Brennan and Comey.
Gowdy told Fox News, where he is now a contributor, that his comments on the matter were based on sensitive documents that he reviewed while he served as chairman of the Republican-led House Oversight Committee.
Contrary to the ex-CIA official’s assertion that the dossier was not included in the intel community’s ICA Russia report, there have been testimony and media statements involving key players saying that it was part of the overall assessment.
Last December, Comey outright contradicted Brennan’s own testimony that the anti-Trump dossier was, as Brennan put it, “not in any way used as the basis for the intelligence community’s assessment” that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
In testimony before the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees, Comey stated that material from the Steele dossier was indeed utilized in the IC report. Internally, the FBI referred to the dossier as “crown material.”
“So do you recall whether any quote, crown material or dossier material was included in the IC assessment?” Gowdy asked Comey at the time.
“Yes,” Comey replied. “I’m going to be careful here because I’m talking about a document that’s still classified. The unclassified thing we talked about earlier today, the first paragraph you can see of exhibit A, is reflective of the fact that at least some of the material that Steele had collected was in the big thing called the intelligence community assessment in an annex called annex A.”
Annex A in the report was titled, “Russia—Kremlin’s TV Seeks To Influence Politics, Fuel Discontent in US.”
The annex, like the rest of the report, contains the following disclaimer:
This report is a declassified version of a highly classified assessment; its conclusions are identical to those in the highly classified assessment but this version does not include the full supporting information on key elements of the influence campaign.
Comey went on to describe a conversation that he said he had with Brennan about how to include the dossier material in the IC assessment:
Gowdy: Do you recall the specific conversation or back and forth with then-Director Brennan on whether or not the material should be included in the IC assessment?
Comey. Yes. I remember conversation — let me think about it for a second. I remember there was conversation about what form its presentation should take in the overarching document; that is, should it be in an annex; should it be in the body; that the intelligence community broadly found its source credible and that it was corroborative of the central thesis of the intelligence community assessment, and the discussion was should we put it in the body or put it in an attachment.
I’m hesitating because I don’t remember whether I had that conversation — I had that conversation with John Brennan, but I remember that there was conversation about how it should be treated.
Comey’s descriptions are at direct odds with a statement Brennan made during May 2017 testimony before the House Intelligence Committee in which Brennan claimed the dossier was “not in any way used as the basis for the intelligence community’s assessment” on alleged Russian interference. Brennan repeated that claim during numerous news media interviews.
Comey is not the only former top official involved in the IC report to say that the dossier played a role in the report’s conclusions.
As RealClearPolitics.com documents, former NSA Director Rogers wrote in a classified letter that the dossier played a role in the IC’s assessment and a dossier summary was included in an initial draft appendix:
In a March 5, 2018, letter to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, Adm. Rogers informed the committee that a two-page summary of the dossier — described as “the Christopher Steele information” — was “added” as an “appendix to the ICA draft,” and that consideration of that appendix was “part of the overall ICA review/approval process.”
Meanwhile Clapper conceded during a previous CNN interview that the IC assessment was able to corroborate “some of the substantive content of the dossier,” implying that the dossier itself was a factor.
“I think with respect to the dossier itself, the key thing is it doesn’t matter who paid for it,” Clapper said. “It’s what the dossier said and the extent to which it was — it’s corroborated or not. We had some concerns about it from the standpoint of its sourcing which we couldn’t corroborate.”
“But at the same time, some of the substantive content, not all of it, but some of the substantive content of the dossier, we were able to corroborate in our Intelligence Community assessment which from other sources in which we had very high confidence to it,” he added.
Comey has also been in hot water for his use of the discredited dossier to obtained FISA warrants to spy on Carter Page, a tangential adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Aaron Klein is Breitbart’s Jerusalem bureau chief and senior investigative reporter. He is a New York Times bestselling author and hosts the popular weekend talk radio program, “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio.” Follow him on Twitter @AaronKleinShow. Follow him on Facebook.
Joshua Klein contributed research to this article.