In Context: James Comey’s past comments on interference in FBI investigations

In this May 3, 2017, photo then-FBI Director James Comey testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
In this May 3, 2017, photo then-FBI Director James Comey testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

When former FBI Director James Comey appears before Congress, lawmakers are sure to ask him about press reports alleging President Donald Trump may have interfered in the agency’s Russia investigation.

The New York Times reported in mid May that Trump asked Comey to have the FBI back off from its investigation into ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to a memo Comey wrote soon after the interaction that was described to the newspaper.

Right after the story broke, some right-wing commentators said Comey’s own testimony to Congress on May 3, days before Trump fired him, contradicted this story.

"Comey said under oath that Trump did not ask him to halt any investigation - 5/8/17," tweeted pundit Jack Posobiec, alongside a screenshot of a transcript of Comey’s May 3 testimony.

"SMOKING GUN=> Comey Under Oath: Trump NEVER Pressured FBI to Halt Investigations ‘It's Not Happened,’ " tweeted pundit Bill Mitchell.

While this viral claim seems to have lost some of its steam, we wanted to clear it up before Comey returns to Capitol Hill June 8 to answer Senate Intelligence Committee questions about Trump’s potential interference in an FBI investigation.

It’s incorrect to say Comey testified under oath that Trump never pressured the FBI to halt or alter any investigation.

The full exchange between Comey and Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, shows that he was talking about whether anyone at the Justice Department had tried to stifle an investigation — not the president.

Further, Comey was speaking generally about his experience at the FBI, not the Russia investigation in particular.

Hirono: "And so speaking of the independence of not just the judiciary but I'd like you to clarify the FBI's independence from the DOJ apparatus. Can the FBI conduct an investigation independent from the department of Justice. Or does the FBI have to disclose all its investigations to the DOJ? And does it have to get the Attorney General's consent?"

Comey: "Well, we work with the Department of Justice, whether that's main Justice or U.S. attorney's offices on all of our investigations.

"And so we work with them and so in a legal sense we're not independent of the Department of Justice. We are spiritually, culturally pretty independent group, and that's the way you would want it. But yes, we work with the Department of Justice on all of our investigations."

Hirono: "So if the Attorney General or senior officials at the Department of Justice opposes a specific investigation, can they halt that FBI investigation?"

Comey: "In theory, yes."

Hirono: "Has it happened?"

Comey: "Not in my experience. Because it would be a big deal to tell the FBI to stop doing something that — without an appropriate purpose. I mean where oftentimes they give us opinions that we don't see a case there and so you ought to stop investing resources in it. But I'm talking about a situation where we were told to stop something for a political reason, that would be a very big deal. It's not happened in my experience."

So when Comey said, "It's not happened in my experience," it appears he was talking about senior officials at the Justice Department trying to obstruct an investigation, rather than the White House or other government officials.

We should also point out a comment by FBI Acting Director Andrew McCabe, who took over after Trump fired Comey. Speaking to Congress May 11 about the Russia investigation, McCabe said, "There has been no effort to impede our investigation today."

McCabe’s comment doesn’t necessarily negate the New York Times story. McCabe was responding to a question from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., about whether Comey’s firing impacted any of the FBI’s work.

Rubio: "Mr. McCabe, can you, without going into the specific of any individual investigation, I think the American people want to know, has the dismissal of Mr. Comey in any way impeded, interrupted, stopped or negatively impacted any of the work, any investigation, or any ongoing projects at the Federal Bureau of Investigations?"

McCabe: "As you know, Senator, the work of the men and women of the FBI continues despite any changes in circumstance, any decisions. So there has been no effort to impede our investigation today. Quite simply put, sir, you cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing, protecting the American people, and upholding the Constitution."

What does this all mean? So far, Comey’s congressional testimony doesn’t tell us much about the truthfulness of allegations that Trump tried to impede the Russia investigation.

When Comey reappears before Congress June 8, we may get more detail.

But he might save the most interesting tidbits for the non-public session later the same day.