The Daily 202: James Comey says he’s more worried about Trump than Russian disinformation campaigns – SFGate

The Daily 202: James Comey says he’s more worried about Trump than Russian disinformation campaigns  SFGate

SAUSALITO, Calif. – Former FBI director Jim Comey pushed back on Attorney General William Barr’s claim that the U.S. government spied on President Donald …

SAUSALITO, Calif. – Former FBI director Jim Comey pushed back on Attorney General William Barr’s claim that the U.S. government spied on President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign as he pressed the attorney general to release special counsel Bob Mueller’s report.

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“I don’t understand what the heck he’s talking about,” Comey said here on Thursday. “But when I hear that kind of language used, it’s concerning because the FBI and the Department of Justice conduct court-ordered electronic surveillance. I have never thought of that as ‘spying.’ The reason I’m interested to know what he means by that is that, if the attorney general has come to the belief that that should be called ‘spying,’ then wow. That’s going to require a whole lot of conversations inside the Department of Justice. I don’t know of any court-ordered electronic surveillance aimed at the Trump campaign.”

Comey fielded questions for an hour-and-a-half during a cybersecurity conference sponsored by the nonpartisan Hewlett Foundation on Cavallo Point, a former U.S. Army post just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. A few dozen technology industry leaders from Silicon Valley and national security insiders from Washington, plus some academics and journalists, are grappling over four days with a thicket of thorny tissues, from when it’s appropriate to conduct offensive cyber operations against American adversaries to how social media companies should balance consumer privacy with competing demands.

Testifying before a Senate panel on Wednesday, Barr said the Justice Department is reviewing the decisions made during the 2016 campaign – something Trump has pushed for since taking office. “I think spying did occur,” the attorney general said. “I’m not suggesting it was not adequately predicated, but I need to explore that. . . . Frankly, to the extent that there were any issues at the FBI, I do not view it as a problem that’s endemic to the FBI. I think there was probably a failure among a group of leaders there in the upper echelon.”

Comey, of course, launched the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference in 2016. He oversaw it until Trump fired him in May 2017. But Comey emphasized that he’s still trying to keep an open mind on Barr, who previously served as George H.W. Bush’s attorney general. “I think his career has earned him a presumption that he will be one of the rare Cabinet members who will stand up for things like truth and facts and institutional values,” Comey said. “Language like this makes it harder, but I still think he’s entitled to that presumption.”

The 58-year-old Comey has also been in the news again this week because Trump has continued to attack him by name and refer to him as a “dirty cop.” “It was an illegal investigation. It was started illegally. Everything about it was crooked,” the president told reporters on Wednesday. “This was an attempted coup. This was an attempted takedown of a president, and we beat them. We beat them!”

Suzanne Spaulding, a former undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, asked Comey during Q&A with the audience about ongoing Russian efforts to manipulate American public opinion. “I’m worried that we may be missing the boat again around Russia’s attacks against the justice system that are ongoing to this day and that you have been a victim of,” she said. “Disinformation campaigns have targeted you, Mueller, DOJ and FBI but also courts, judges and prosecutors across the country. . . . How dangerous is it that Russia may be trying to erode confidence in our courts and our justice system? How do we get ahead of this?”

Comey said that he worries more about Trump in this regard than Russian President Vladimir Putin. “My mind actually doesn’t go to Russia first when I worry about that threat,” he said. “I’m sure Russia is engaged in efforts to undermine all manner of American institutions, but the president of the United States tweets lies about those institutions nearly every day. He does it so often that we’ve become numb to it. And there’s danger in that numbness. I wake up some mornings and the president’s tweeted I should be in jail. You know what I do? I laugh and I go, ‘Oh, there he goes again.’ I don’t follow him on Twitter, so I only see it if one of you retweets it. But I laugh. And that laughing is dangerous.”

Comey said there’s “no conceivable basis” and there’s nothing funny about Trump saying innocent Americans should be locked up. “There’s not even an investigation of me,” he said. “But the numbness is: Holy cow, the president of the United States is announcing that people should be in jail or that the FBI is corrupt! I haven’t yet seen how he’s going to navigate his belief that he was ‘fully exonerated’ by a ‘corrupt’ institution, but he’ll navigate it somehow and he’ll navigate it with lies. There’s tremendous danger to us in our numbness. I’m sure you all feel it.”

An erosion of democratic norms is the threat within that keeps Comey up at night. “Every president makes false statements,” Comey said. “Barack Obama did it when he said if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. George W. Bush when he said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. . . . We held them accountable because we measured their distance to the touchstone of the truth. And those two men spent the rest of their terms and probably the rest of their lives explaining to us – I know, I thought, I meant, I understood – to explain the tether. There are so many lies coming at us now that there’s a danger that the touchstone will just wash away and that we will stop measuring our leaders against the truth. It should be plural because the Republican Party bears some responsibility here.”

Comey was a registered Republican for most of his adult life. He donated to the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and John McCain. Bush 43 appointed him as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and then deputy attorney general. Obama named him as FBI director.

To be sure, Comey emphasized that the U.S. is still not doing enough to counter the threat posed by the Kremlin. “A response to an attack on the United States requires that the commander-in-chief recognize it and understand it,” he said. “Our fundamental problem is I don’t see that our commander-in-chief acknowledges that it even happened. If you don’t acknowledge that another nation attacked you, how can you possibly be doing enough to deal with it the next time? In fact, your silence is an invitation in many ways for them to do it again.”

Other highlights:

– Comey said he accepts Barr’s summary at face value that Mueller’s investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” But he noted that Barr’s four-page letter said Mueller did find evidence of Russian interference.

“One of the good things about Barr’s letter is that it tells us – without even needing to read the Mueller report – that ‘the Russia thing’ was not a hoax, that it was real and that that assessment is backed by hard evidence,” Comey said, alluding to Trump’s acknowledgement in 2017 to NBC’s Lester Holt that he had the “Russia thing” on his mind when he fired Comey.

“We need to ask why our president won’t acknowledge what his intelligence community has found overwhelmingly,” he added. “You need to start there or else you have a situation where the great people who have sworn to protect the United States at lower levels in the government are having to act in the absence of presidential direction and in many ways in the face of presidential denial of a fundamental attack on the United States. I don’t think we’re adequately prepared and, in many ways, we’re inviting it to happen again by virtue of our president’s silence.”

– Comey said the Russians will try to play aggressively again in the 2020 election. “It is true that the Russians came after us, and they are going to come again because they exceeded their wildest hopes,” he said. “They dirtied up our election, they damaged Hillary Clinton and, I don’t know what the causal relationship is, but Donald Trump was elected president.”

– Comey said he’s especially concerned about what Moscow did to fan the flames of racial discord inside the United States, and he hopes that the Mueller report illuminates some of the 2016 misinformation efforts vis-à-vis African-Americans. (I wrote a Big Idea about this in December.)

Pointing to the charges that Mueller brought against the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, Comey said: “You see a lot in the indictment of the Russian actors that showed that their goal was to find our fault lines and to push on them to divide us. Obviously, things like guns are important fault lines, but I don’t know of a more important, fundamental, fault line in the United States – since before we were the United States – than race. It appears from the indictment that there was a concerted effort to exploit that fault line to make us hate along lines where we sometimes hate quickly without being pushed. But they pushed.”

Barr said on Wednesday that he’s still on track to release an abridged version of the 400-page Mueller report early next week. He warned Congress in a letter on March 29th that he will redact sensitive information related to sources and methods, grand jury material, ongoing criminal cases and – most significantly – information that “unduly” infringes upon the privacy and reputational interests of “peripheral third parties.” That fourth category gives Barr a lot of wiggle room to hold information back if he chooses to.

Comey urged Barr to err on the side of putting out as much information as possible about “key players” in the Russia probe and pointed to several precedents of the Justice Department weighing in publicly on people who weren’t indicted. In doing so, he defended his July 2016 announcement that Hillary Clinton would not be charged with a crime but that her use of a private email server had been “extremely careless.” Comey announced shortly before the election that he was reopening the investigation into Clinton because of new information and then said a few days later that he was closing it again. Clinton has blamed Comey, and his letters, for her defeat.

“The Department of Justice has long offered transparency about the conduct of uncharged individuals in cases of legitimate and extraordinary public interest,” Comey said. “They did it after Ferguson, Missouri. . . . I did it after I thought the Hillary Clinton investigation was completed. . . . The Department of Justice after the so-called IRS targeting of the tea party criticized the conduct of Lois Lerner but didn’t name and criticize the conduct of any lower-level people at the IRS. . . . She was a key player, and for the public to have confidence that the department wasn’t pulling its punches they needed to know the department’s assessment of this key player. So they said it was poor judgment and bad management, but it didn’t rise to the level of criminal conduct.

“That’s very similar to what I said in the Hillary Clinton case,” Comey continued. “To explain our judgment that this doesn’t rise to the level of criminal conduct, we have to explain just what we think it is. Not to attack somebody or disparage them but to be transparent about the basis for this judgment. . . . You’ll notice that I didn’t talk about anybody else in that announcement in July 2016 except Secretary Clinton, and we tried not to name the people who set up the servers or the peripheral players. That’s an important approach to these kinds of things that’s consistent with the goal: The public needs to know enough to have confidence that this was done in the right way, and the public doesn’t need to know about marginal players for that goal to be achieved.”

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special counsel eight days after Comey’s removal, also wrote the memo justifying Trump’s decision to terminate the FBI director based on his handling of the Clinton case. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Rosenstein defended Barr’s process. “He’s being as forthcoming as he can, and so this notion that he’s trying to mislead people, I think is just completely bizarre,” Rosenstein said.

Comey praised House Democrats for conducting rigorous oversight of the Trump administration. “Oversight by the third branch is essential,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons I thought it was so important that at least one house of Congress be controlled by a different party [in the 2018 midterm elections] because we were seeing, as Americans, no meaningful oversight. And the founders designed our system to have interests crashing against themselves. So it is a great thing, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or neither, for there to be some crashing. I know because I’ve been subject to oversight when I’ve been in government that it’s a pain in the neck, but it’s a great pain in the neck. I believed that even when I was the one being overseen. It’s a healthy thing for democracy in general.”

Looking back, Comey said the U.S. government failed to appreciate how Russia intended to use the intelligence it was gathering in the run up to the 2016 election. “I think there was a fundamental miss there and an assumption that the extensive hacking activities that the U.S. and its allies saw . . . was traditional nation-state intelligence gathering,” Comey explained. “Had we known at that point that it was actually . . . something very different, which was an intention to weaponize or attack the democratic processes of the United States, the government might have done something different to get out in front of that. We looked at that conduct and tried where we could to warn organizations without blowing our sources and methods. If we’d known they were stealing information in order to attack the American election in a year hence, I think we would have thought about and probably acted about it differently.”

Susan Hennessey, a former lawyer for the National Security Agency who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and moderated the discussion, asked what else Comey would do differently if he could go back in time to when what was supposed to be a 10-year term started in 2013. “Can I decline to accept the appointment as FBI director?” Comey asked.

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The Washington Post’s Joanie Greve and Mariana Alfaro contribute to this report.