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Q&A: One Year After Comey’s Firing, What’s Next?

The Brennan Center’s Michael German – who served as an FBI agent from 1988 through 2004 – looks at the past year and what might come next for James Comey, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the overall investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election.

May 9, 2018

Exactly one year after his firing, former FBI director James Comey contin­ues to involve himself in the ongo­ing inquiry about Russi­a’s role in the 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. As Comey contin­ues to promote his book A Higher Loyalty, the Bren­nan Center’s Michael German – who served as an FBI agent from 1988 through 2004 – looks at the past year and what might come next for Comey, Special Coun­sel Robert Mueller, and the over­all invest­ig­a­tion.

What’s happened in the 12 months since Comey’s firing?

Michael German: Robert Mueller was appoin­ted Special Coun­sel because of or at least in the wake of the Comey firing, and alleg­a­tions of obstruc­tion are now the center­piece of the broader inquiry into the pres­id­ent and alleged Russian influ­ence on his elec­tion. In the past 12 months, the time it usually takes to just set up an office and get star­ted, Mueller has secured indict­ments or guilty pleas for nearly 20 indi­vidu­als and compan­ies, includ­ing former Trump campaign staff, a former national secur­ity adviser, and 13 Russian nation­als. That’s pretty tidy work.

Mean­while for Comey person­ally, he managed to get a publish­ing deal and get a book on the best­seller list. He’s on a whirl­wind national tour of inter­views. And it’s all likely driv­ing the prosec­utors in Mueller’s office completely insane. Comey is an import­ant witness in a poten­tial obstruc­tion case against the Pres­id­ent, and his comments provide fodder for defense attor­neys and Trump-support­ing pundits. You don’t have to read the whole book or listen to every speech to under­stand that Comey has seri­ous criti­cisms of the pres­id­ent who fired him. Of course, that does­n’t negate Trump’s own public state­ments tying his firing of Comey to the Russia invest­ig­a­tion, but Comey’s comments don’t help Mueller’s team.

Why is that?

MG: Pres­id­ent Trump would want to present Comey as an unre­li­able and biased FBI director who could no longer serve in the role as an object­ive chief law enforce­ment officer. So anything Comey says or does that indic­ates he did have animus toward the pres­id­ent or perceived him as a crim­inal would tend to support the view that his firing might’ve been justi­fied for reas­ons besides delay­ing or imped­ing the Russia probe.

If Trump hadn’t fired Comey a year ago, would the Russia invest­ig­a­tion be play­ing out differ­ently?

MG: What we have to recog­nize is that the Mueller invest­ig­a­tion didn’t start from noth­ing. The Justice Depart­ment had been invest­ig­at­ing and the FBI had been invest­ig­at­ing at least since July 2016. It’s impossible from our vant­age to know whether the install­a­tion of a special coun­sel might have actu­ally delayed what would have been earlier indict­ments, or whether the focus and intens­ity of having a special coun­sel has now sped things up.

What’s clear is that FBI agents invest­ig­at­ing all this brought it to a certain point when Mueller came in. If he gets fired, they’ll continue that invest­ig­a­tion to its logical conclu­sion.

How has Comey’s publi­city campaign and now this book perhaps rehab­il­it­ated his image?

MG: I don’t think the book has helped Comey. For those who wanted to put a halo on him, they’ll still support him no matter what. And for those who hate him, they’ll hate him no matter what. But I think for the vast middle, his explan­a­tions for why he was publicly crit­ical of Hillary Clin­ton’s use of a private email server yet kept silent about the FBI’s invest­ig­a­tion of the Trump campaign just does­n’t ring true. I think he ulti­mately has a lot to answer for when it comes to his conduct as FBI director.

There’s an inspector gener­al’s report that’s coming out soon about all this.

MG: DOJ Inspector General Michael Horow­itz is tasked with invest­ig­at­ing the Depart­ment of Justice, which includes the FBI, and its conduct during the Clin­ton invest­ig­a­tion. That inquiry has already cost one high-level offi­cial [former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe] his job and is clearly moving apace. I imagine the whole report will come out in the next few months. And there are indic­a­tions that it will be crit­ical of Comey, because he appears to have viol­ated long­stand­ing Justice and FBI regu­la­tions about divul­ging inform­a­tion about invest­ig­a­tions that didn’t result in indict­ments.

It’s possible they rushed his book to public­a­tion because they knew the IG report would likely be crit­ical, and it’s harder for Comey to present himself as an ethical leader if there’s a crit­ical report that points to any seri­ous viol­a­tions.

More broadly, how does the Comey story and the Russia invest­ig­a­tion reflect on Amer­ican intel­li­gence?

MG: Look, the FBI and the rest of the intel­li­gence community’s number one job is to protect the nation from hostile foreign threats, and the idea that a known hostile nation could come in years in advance of an elec­tion and poten­tially influ­ence the way we select our highest offi­cial is shock­ing and has to go down as one of the biggest intel­li­gence fail­ures in Amer­ican history. And that implic­ates both Comey and even Mueller.

How so?

MG: Well Comey was FBI director during the elec­tion, and Mueller was director while [former Trump campaign chief] Paul Mana­fort and others are alleged to have commit­ted major white-collar crimes that went unin­vestig­ated. At the time, maybe the feel­ing was: what’s the big deal about a few Amer­ic­ans getting rich cater­ing to Russian olig­archs? The big deal of course is that now you have a bunch of high-level polit­ical oper­at­ives who have issues with the Russian govern­ment that could be exploited.

The U.S. intel­li­gence community is so focused on counter-terror that they’re not seeing these other threats. The import­ant thing now is to gather the evid­ence and hope that Robert Mueller acts quickly. Then the Amer­ican public can get what they need to make better decisions about the proper func­tion­ing of the govern­ment.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.