James Comey with Hand Over Mouth

Screengrab via NBC News/YouTube

The 8 big questions Comey refused to answer in public

It's what Comey didn't say that may matter the most.


Andrew Couts


Posted on Jun 8, 2017   Updated on May 23, 2021, 3:46 am CDT

America hung on every word uttered by former FBI Director James Comey during a public congressional hearing on Thursday morning, but it’s what he refused to say that may become the central issues.

Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey discussed for over two hours his interactions with President Donald Trump, who fired Comey early last month; Russia’s attempts to meddle in the U.S. election; and details surrounding the federal investigation into Russia and possible ties to members of Trump’s campaign and administration.

The hotly anticipated answers from Comey provided a number of key new details:

  • Comey accused the president and his administration of lying about FBI employees losing confidence in him.
  • He said he believed Trump fired him “in some way to change the way the Russia investigation was being conducted.”
  • He admitted to orchestrating a leak to the media of his memos detailing his conversations with Trump in an effort to have a special prosecutor appointed. (The effort worked, by the way.)
  • He confirmed former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was under criminal investigation when he resigned in February.
  • He confirmed that former Attorney General Loretta Lynch asked him to call the investigation into Hillary Clinton‘s use of a private email system a “matter” instead of an “investigation.”
  • Perhaps most notably, he confirmed that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is investigating whether Trump committed obstruction of justice through his firing of Comey.

So, those are some of the major details Comey was willing and able to discuss during the public hearing. But there’s a second part of Thursday’s hearing that is taking place away from the cameras and behind closed doors, which is likely where the most pertinent revelations will come out. Here’s a quick rundown of what the former FBI director said he could not discuss. Just remember not to read too much into any of it.

1) The infamous Russia dossier

In January, BuzzFeed News published a dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele that contained several damning and, as Comey put it, “salacious” allegations about President Trump that Russia could ostensibly use to “blackmail” him. Although the contents of the dossier are public, it remains unclear what portions, if any, law enforcement officials have confirmed. Is it all garbage, or does it contain some truth?

“In the public domain is the question of the Steele dossier, a document that has been around now for over a year. I’m not sure when the FBI first took possession of it, but the media had it before you had it and we had it. At the time of your departure from the FBI, was the FBI able to confirm any criminal allegations contained in the Steele document?” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the committee chairman, asked Comey.

“Mr. Chairman, I don’t think that’s a question I can answer in an open setting,” Comey said. “It goes into the details of the investigation.”

Burr further asked Comey, “when you read the dossier, what was your reaction, given that it was 100 percent directed at the president-elect?” The former FBI director said he could not discuss this detail.

Sen. Angus King (D-Maine) later asked Comey whether the Steele dossier was being reviewed. Comey said he could not discuss it because it fell into the realm of the special prosecutor’s investigation.

The internet, of course, took this all to mean that the most infamous part of the dossier is true.

2) ‘Facts’ about Attorney General Jeff Sessions

In his prepared testimony, Comey said he did not inform Attorney General Jeff Sessions that Trump, as Comey describes it, asked him to “let go” the FBI investigation into Flynn. Comey said he did this because he expected Sessions to recuse himself into any investigations involving Russia because the attorney general—a former Alabama senator who endorsed Trump early in the 2016 campaign—had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign, a fact he failed to disclose during his confirmation hearing.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Comey whether the FBI’s leadership team did not inform Sessions about Comey’s interactions with Trump because of “the attorney general’s own interactions with the Russians or his behavior with regard to the investigation.”

Comey responded: “Our judgment, as I recall, was that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.”

It is certain that Comey’s mention of “facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting” will emerge as a major point of interest.

3) Decision to announce findings in Clinton email investigation

One of the most consequential decisions Comey made as FBI director—at least among those we know about—was his unilateral decision to announce on July 5 the Bureau’s findings in its investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server for her work as secretary of state.

It is unusual for the FBI director, rather than the attorney general or other Justice Department officials, to make such an announcement.

Comey says he did so because then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch appeared to have compromised her integrity by meeting privately with former President Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac while the investigation into his wife was ongoing.

During Thursday’s hearing, Comey said there were “other things that contributed” to that decision—but at least one of them is classified. “One significant item I can’t [discuss in open session], I know the committee’s been briefed on,” Comey said. “There’s been some public accounts of it, which are nonsense, but I understand the committee’s been briefed on the classified facts.”

Comey did confirm one key detail, however: He said Lynch “had directed me not to call it an investigation, but instead to call it a matter, which confused me and concerned me.” Trump supporters have singled out this claim as clear evidence of the Obama administration attempting to inappropriately help Clinton’s election chances against Trump.

4) Whether Trump colluded with Russia

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) directly asked Comey, “Do you believe Donald Trump colluded with Russia?” Comey said he could not discuss his answer in public.

“That’s a question I don’t think I should answer in an open setting,” Comey replied. “When I left, we did not have an investigation focused on President Trump. But that’s a question that will be answered by the investigation, I think.”

5) Jared Kushner’s reported attempts to set up back channels with Russia

In May, the Washington Post and New York Times reported that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser, attempted to set up back-channel communications with Russia’s ambassador ahead of the president’s inauguration.

The White House has not officially denied that Kushner attempted to do so. And the reports have sparked ample debate over whether the alleged talks of back channels were appropriate, if not illegal.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) asked Comey whether Trump’s transition team (he didn’t mention Kushner by name) acted appropriately by attempting to establish back channels with Russia. Comey responded by saying that he could not comment on “whether that happened” but added that doing so would have posed a risk.

“You spare the Russians the cost and effort to break into our communications channels by using theirs,” Comey said of back channels. “You make it a whole lot easier for them to capture all of your conversations. Then to use those to the benefit of Russia against the United States.”

6) Flynn’s role in FBI’s Russia investigation

Asked by Sen. King whether Flynn was a “central figure” in the FBI’s investigation into Russia, Comey said he could not discuss the issue in an open setting. King asked if he was “part of” the investigation, which Comey also refused to answer.

Sen. Cotton also asked Comey about Flynn, pressing him on whether the former national security adviser’s conversations with Russia’s ambassador were “illicit.” Comey declined to answer on the grounds that he would not discuss U.S. intelligence-collection details.

“I don’t want to comment on that,” Comey said. “I’m pretty sure the bureau has not confirmed any interception of communications. So, I don’t want to talk about that in an opening setting.”

Cotton pushed further, again asking about Flynn’s conversations with the Russian official, which Comey again refused to answer. Cotton finally asked whether the investigation into Flynn has come to a close, which prompted another denial from Comey.

7) Undisclosed Trump administration meetings with Russian officials

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) appeared to anticipate Comey’s refusal to answer her questions in an open setting by opening a particularly sensitive line of inquiry.

“Are you aware of any meetings between the Trump administration officials and Russia officials during the campaign that have not been acknowledged by those officials in the White House?” Harris asked.

“No comment, in open setting,” Comey responded.

Harris asked, “Are you aware of any questions by Trump campaign officials or associates of the campaign to hide their communications with Russian officials through encrypted means?”

“Same answer,” Comey said.

Finally Harris asked, “In the course of the FBI’s investigation, did you ever come across anything that suggested that communication, records, documents, or other evidence had been destroyed?”

“Same,” Comey said, “same.”

8) Russian bank with Trump connections

Straying slightly from the standard line of inquiry, Sen. King asked Comey if he could discuss Vnesheconombank (VEB), a Russian state-owned bank that reportedly provided millions of dollars in financing for a Toronto hotel to Trump business associate Alexander Shnaider, according to the Wall Street Journal.

VEB also said it had a conversation with Kushner, whose family also has a real estate empire, in 2016.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the state Attorney General Jeff Sessions represented in the Senate. He was a senator from Alabama. We regret the error.

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*First Published: Jun 8, 2017, 4:34 pm CDT