As Russia probe heats up, Trump pushes new baseless smear against Comey

Distraction theater.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

On Thursday, The Daily Beast broke news that special counsel Bob Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign for possible collusion with Russia now includes help from an IRS unit that focuses “exclusively on financial crime, including tax evasion and money laundering.” That report came a day after Politico reported that Mueller is also working with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman — a troubling development for Trump, as the president can’t issue pardons for state-level convictions.

Perhaps not coincidentally, on Friday, Trump was back to trying to gin up new scandals involving former FBI Director James Comey. Trump posted a tweet alleging that Comey “exonerated Hillary Clinton long before the investigation was over” less than 40 minutes after the topic was discussed on his favorite morning TV show, Fox & Friends.

The story Trump alluded to in his tweet is based in a joint statement issued Thursday by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) about transcripts they recently received from a government watchdog agency. Those transcripts indicate that Comey drafted a statement announcing he wouldn’t be recommending charges against Hillary Clinton more than two months before the investigation into her email conduct was closed in July 2016. (The actual decision about whether or not to bring charges is up to the attorney general, not the FBI director.)

There’s no indication that Comey’s preparation of a statement at that stage of a lengthy investigation is unusual. CNN’s report about the Grassley/Graham statement includes comment from two sources “familiar with the matter” who basically said the story is a nothingburger.

A person familiar with the matter pushed back on the notion that Comey had already reached a conclusion that affected the investigation.

The person said back in spring 2016, agents and Justice Department officials were talking about how the investigation would end and there was a belief that the evidence was going in a direction to not support bringing charges. This individual said by April 2016 the FBI had reviewed most of the evidence and didn’t find evidence suggesting that Clinton had violated federal law. The person said the FBI wanted to interview her but didn’t believe it was going to change the outcome.

The source also said Comey was not involved in the day-to-day steps of the investigation, so even if he reached a conclusion it wouldn’t have affected the result of the investigation.

A second person familiar with the matter told CNN that Comey had not already made up his mind, and that it did not influence the investigation. The second source says the FBI had already reviewed much of the evidence by spring and it was becoming more clear that it was not likely to support bringing charges.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Wittes, editor of Lawfare and a personal friend of Comey’s, also said there is nothing unusual about Comey preparing a statement.

Trump’s attack on Comey for allegedly being too soft on Clinton comes less than four months after Trump justified his decision to dismiss Comey as FBI director by citing a letter making a case that Comey was actually too hard on her.

That letter, written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, criticized Comey for holding a press conference “to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation [i.e., Clinton].”

“The Director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial,” Rosenstein wrote. “It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.”

Rosenstein’s letter also criticizes Comey for writing to Congress on October 28 of last year and informing members that investigators were reviewing newly discovered information pertinent to the Clinton probe. Comey’s decision to make that information public reignited the controversy surrounding Clinton’s emails less than two weeks before the election.

Trump’s baseless accusation about Comey prematurely exonerating Clinton comes less than two months after he accused him of illegally leaking classified information—again, without evidence.

As ThinkProgress detailed at the time, Trump’s allegation was based on a misinterpretation of a misleading report written by a top executive with Sinclair Media, an organization that attracted controversy by making a deal with the Trump campaign to secure more access in exchange for more favorable coverage.

Both Graham and Grassley have recently pushed for new congressional investigations into the Clintons.