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FBI's Comey Faces Questions From Senate About October Surprise

FBI Director James Comey pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

FBI Director James Comey testified in front of lawmakers today about his October 28 letter that some say helped Donald Trump win the election.

Comey took questions during the Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing, defending his decision to notify congress last fall of new emails related to the FBI's investigation of Hillary Clinton.

The question of why Comey commented on the investigation into Clinton’s emails but not the one into Trump’s Russia connections remains largely unanswered, but national security expert Juliette Kayyem has a theory.

“He thought she was going to win,” Kayyem said on BPR today. “He was worried about this leaking, that the investigation had been reopened for some short period of time, and that the integrity of the FBI would have been put into question.”

Kayyem said if Clinton had won and voters had found out about the investigation after the election, the FBI “would have been killed.”

“That is the only explanation,” she said, “and it’s a pretty bad one, because your FBI director cannot have feelings about polls, or about himself.”

In October, senior intelligence officials urged Comey not to send the letter to congress, saying the FBI does not confirm ongoing investigations. The FBI director went ahead despite this advice, and he has faced criticism since then, especially today.

He said the idea that his letter might have influenced the election makes him “mildly nauseous,” a choice of words that’s triggered negative responses from many intelligence experts, including Kayyem.

“Comey needs to open the lens a little bit if he’s going to do some self-reflection,” Kayyem said on BPR today. “It’s always been about what people will think about him and what people will think about the FBI. The reason why we have these rules is because I don’t care if Comey felt nauseous, and no one should care what the FBI director feels.”

Kayyem also pointed out that Comey’s effort to maintain apolitical backfired this election season.

“He’s an adult; he knows the FBI is working in an environment in which you’ve got Trump versus Clinton,” she said. “His failure to take in a political moment to see what he was doing, is a political moment.”

Comey said today that “concealment” of the email update to avoid influencing the election would have been the wrong move, and he would repeat his decision to release the letter.

Kayyem said Comey’s exceptional treatment of Clinton began long before October 28.

“This started in June when he decides he is not going to prosecute Hillary Clinton, and has this press conference that is literally like a campaign speech,” said Kayyem. [Comey] opened it up for himself.”

The FBI director read an unusual statement during the summer about Clinton’s use of a private email system, one that he admitted included “more detail about [the FBI’s] process” than would a normal briefing.

Kayyem called this speech “unprecedented.”

Comey claimed today that he treated both Clinton’s and Trump’s investigations “consistently under the same principles.”

Comey said he waited three months before disclosing details of both investigations, but Kayyem said that his October letter’s proximity to the election raises a lot of questions.

“Once he violated the rules that you don’t disclose so close to the election, why would you violate them for her and not for him?” asked Kayyem. “There’s no good answer.”

Juliette Kayyem is the host of the SCIF podcast, founder of Kayyem Solutions and a contributor to WGBH and CNN. To hear her interview in its entirety, click on the audio player above.

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