Former FBI Director James Comey said he won’t ignore the House Judiciary Committee’s subpoena compelling him to testify behind closed doors about his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, but his legal team is looking at his options.
“I always respect subpoenas,” Comey told WGBH News’ Jared Bowen in an exclusive interview. “I would never just ignore a subpoena. If I were going to respond in some way, I would respond legally. I wouldn’t just blow it off.”
In a wide-ranging interview at the WGBH Studio at the Boston Public Library, Comey talked about the need for transparency in government oversight, the personnel shakeup at the Department of Justice, Whitey Bulger’s murder in a federal prison and even his own use of private emails during his time at the FBI.
Comey said he is pushing to answer Congress’ questions “in the sunlight” so no one can leak or distort his testimony. His attorney has said Comey will fight the subpoena in court.
House Republicans issued subpoenas on Nov. 21 for Comey and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch to testify privately. Comey said he worries the intent of the hearing is about “trying to create some false narrative that the FBI was on … Team Clinton.”
“I think there ought to be transparency. There ought to be openness,” Comey said. “Ask me questions and let all of America watch.”
Comey could appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 3 if he’s unsuccessful in pushing back against the subpoena.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, head of the House Oversight Committee, acknowledged Comey’s concerns and offered during a television appearance on Sunday to videotape the interview. Comey declined to answer whether that would satisfy his concerns, except to say that it’s “a positive first step.”
Asked about news reports that President Donald Trump wanted the Justice Department to investigate him, Comey responded that he never disclosed classified information.
“I am a little bit numb to the president’s threats and tweets because there is nothing there,” Comey said. “Then I stop myself, because it’s wrong for me or anybody else to become numb to the president of the United States announcing that a private citizen should be prosecuted."
He continued, “I say that slowly because I hope Republicans listen to it and realize that if a Democrat were president and did that, their heads would explode. So my question is, why are your heads not exploding now?”
Comey also addressed Trump naming Matthew Whitaker to be the acting attorney general, saying his appointment is a serious legal question that needs to be worked out by the courts. One of Comey’s main concerns is whether Whitaker has asked career DOJ ethics officials to examine his conflicts of interest around issues like the Mueller investigation. But the former FBI director added that he doesn’t think Whitaker is strong enough to derail Mueller’s team.
“He may not be the sharpest knife in our drawer, but he can see his future and knows that if he acted in an extralegal way, he would go down in history for the wrong reasons,” Comey said. “I’m sure he doesn’t want that.”
Comey wouldn’t give an assessment of Mueller’s investigation except to say that he knows it’s being done professionally and that, from his view, it’s progressing rapidly.
When asked about the revelation that Ivanka Trump used a private email account to conduct government business, Comey drew a distinction between her and the Hillary Clinton investigation. The issue with Clinton was how she handled classified information, Comey said, not the fact that she used a private system. “I don’t see any indication that Ivanka Trump was communicating about classified stuff,” Comey said.
Comey defended his use of a private email account, saying he used Gmail to communicate with his security detail about vacations and school plays — not official government business.
He also called for a full investigation into Whitey Bulger’s death, noting he’s confident the Justice Department’s inspector general will get to the bottom of how it happened.
“If I were running the Department of Justice, I would want a big team of experts on that right away,” Comey said. “It’s terrible when anyone is killed in your custody. You want to learn from it.”