Former FBI Director James Comey was a featured guest at this year's Politicon in Nashville, who during a speaking panel on Saturday recalled his first meetings with then President-elect Donald Trump shortly after the 2016 election.
Comey has often come under fire from both liberals and conservatives for his handling of investigations into both then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Trump.
In 2015, the FBI launched an investigation into Clinton after it was discovered she had been using a private email server installed in her home in Chappaqua, New York, to conduct official government business. At the conclusion of the investigation, Comey held a press conference in July of 2016, announcing that the FBI would not be recommending criminal charges be pursued, while still stating Clinton's handling of classified information had been "extremely careless."
"Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information," Comey said during the July 2016 press conference.
The description of Clinton's handling of classified information as "extremely careless" would later come under fire after 2017 reports revealed an early draft of Comey's statement had used the phrase "grossly negligent" instead of "extremely careless" — "grossly negligent" being an actual legal standard in which criminal charges could be sought if met.
In October of 2016, Comey announced a new investigation into Clinton had been launched after an unrelated investigation into former Congressman Anthony Weiner gave way to previously unseen emails. Weiner was being investigated for engaging in sexually explicit conversations with a 15 year-old girl from North Carolina, and eventually had his phone and computers seized by authorities. Weiner's wife at the time, Huma Abedin, was Clinton's aid during her presidential campaign, which ultimately lead to police discovering new emails not yet turned over to investigators. It was this second investigation and its announcement that Clinton blamed losing to Trump on.
Regarding Trump, the FBI opened an investigation into ties between Trump's presidential campaign and Russian officials in July of 2016, sparked in large part due to comments made by Trump's former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos. The Australian High Commissioner to Britain, Alexander Downer, was reportedly told by Papadopoulos that Russian officials were in possession of damaging information on Clinton. This investigation would eventually be handed off to a special counsel headed by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, which itself would eventually lead to the special counsel identifying "numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign," but ultimately did "not conclude that the president committed a crime."
Comey: The things that we did, the decisions that I'm accountable for, especially in the run up to the election, confused a lot of people because we didn't have a chance to explain it. They saw it through partisan lenses — everybody was trying to figure out during 2016, 'so which side is the FBI on,' when the truth was we weren't on anybody's side.
[The FBI] were not trying to hurt Clinton or help Clinton, they were not trying to hurt Trump or help Trump, they were stuck. They were trying to make the best decisions in impossible, unprecedented situations, and so I get the confusion.
I want to be clear, I was never in Donald Trump's hotel suite, I was in a conference room in Trump Tower. They were two first meetings for me with the president-elect at the end of the first week of January. The first was in a group setting where the director of National Intelligence was going to brief Mr. Trump and his incoming team on the unanimous conclusions of the Intelligence Community, that the Russians massively interfered in our election, with three goals; damage democracy, hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump, in that order.
That one was odd, and it was odd what they didn't ask. I don't remember anyone asking, 'how do we stop this going forward?' I remember instead the focus being entirely on, 'well, it didn't affect the vote, right,' to which the intelligence leaders had to say, 'we don't do that work, we can't tell you that.' I was a little distracted during that meeting, but still kept popping into my head, this sense of [an] eerie reminder of the culture of Cosa Nostra that I had spent a bunch of time on when I was a prosecutor. This boss at the center, this circle around the boss, and I kept pushing it away because it seemed over dramatic to me, and it kept coming back.
The second meeting was me alone with the president-elect. We, the leaders of the Intelligence Community, decided somebody had to tell him that we had information that we hadn't corroborated - we didn't know whether it was true or not, and frankly, we didn't care. But because we had it and it came from a credible source, we needed him to know about this. I drew the short straw to tell the president-elect about this allegation - again, unverified, that there had been unusual sexual activities in 2013 in Russia that the Russians had captured on tape to be able to use to coerce Mr. Trump.
I was very nervous about that meeting. I strongly suspected he would think that I was pulling a J. Edgar Hoover on him, that I was dangling this to gain leverage over him, which was not my purpose, but I knew he would think that way. So how to do this, without embarrassing him, without embarrassing me, without creating a war between him and the FBI, was front and center in my mind. So I did it in the private session, and the meeting started to go off the rails very quickly.
I explained to him the nature of this information, why we were telling him, and that provoked from him a long monologue that had nothing to do with what I had asked about: reviewing and then denying other allegations of sexual misconduct by women that had said he had assaulted them. He started going through one after another; it was a woman on a plane, it was a woman here, and I think during that session he said, 'do I look like a guy who needs to go there?' meaning prostitutes, which I assumed was a rhetorical question so I let that go.
It started to get so defensive that I worried it was going off the rails, and so I pulled out — in a rhetorical sense — reducing the temperature by saying, 'look, we're not investigating you, and we're not investigating this.' That was the essence of that second meeting.