Ex-FBI director Comey: 'I was wrong’ to defend origins of Russia probe

Kadia Tubman
Reporter

Days after declaring he was personally vindicated by the inspector general’s report, which concluded the FBI was justified in opening an investigation into Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, former FBI Director James Comey admitted he was “wrong” to defend the origins of the probe and the bureau's use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Last week, Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz released a long-awaited 434-page report, which found that the FBI team that conducted Crossfire Hurricane — the code name for the bureau’s investigation into links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government — improperly relied too heavily on allegations made by Christopher Steele, a former British spy hired by an opposition research firm working for the Hillary Clinton campaign.

While the report concluded that the FBI acted without political bias when it opened its inquiry, Horowitz cited numerous mistakes in how the investigation was carried out, most notably 17 errors or inaccuracies discovered in the applications to the FISA court for a warrant to wiretap Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser. Comey lauded the inspector general for finding things that the FBI was never accused of, which he referred to as “real sloppiness.” 

“He’s right, I was wrong,” Comey told host Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.” “I was overconfident in the procedures that the FBI and Justice had built over 20 years. I thought they were robust enough. It’s incredibly hard to get a FISA,” he said. “I was overconfident in those.  Because he's right. There was real sloppiness, 17 things that either should've been in the applications or at least discussed and characterized differently. It was not acceptable, and so he's right. I was wrong.”

Wallace called “sloppiness” a euphemism and charged Comey with downplaying the significance of the errors in the investigation. 

"You make it sound like you're a bystander, an eyewitness. You were the director of the FBI while a lot of this was going on, sir," Wallace said. 

“Sure. I'm responsible for it. That's why I'm telling you I was wrong,” Comey replied. 

Video: Chris Wallace Interviews James Comey on ‘Fox News Sunday’

Trump responded to Comey’s admission on Sunday, tweeting, “So now Comey’s admitting he was wrong. Wow, but he’s only doing so because he got caught red-handed. He was actually caught a long time ago. So what are the consequences for his unlawful conduct. Could it be years in jail? Where are the apologies to me and others, Jim?”

Directly following the report's release, Comey declared vindication, writing in a Washington Post op-ed that the report showed "the allegation of a criminal conspiracy was nonsense. There was no illegal wiretapping, there were no informants inserted into the campaign, there was no 'spying' on the Trump campaign."

But when asked during his testimony on Capitol Hill Wednesday if the report vindicated Comey, Horowitz said, “It doesn't vindicate anyone at the FBI who touched this, including the leadership.”

"Maybe it turns upon how we understand the word," Comey said, referring to “vindication.” "What I mean is the FBI was accused of treason, of illegal spying, of tapping Mr. Trump's wires illegally, of opening an investigation without justification, of being a criminal conspiracy to defeat and then unseat a president. All of that was nonsense."

While Democrats zeroed in on the report’s conclusion in spite of the errors it highlighted, Trump’s allies brandished it as proof of a “deep state” conspiracy against the president. 

Attorney General William Barr contradicted his own inspector general when asked whether, after reading Horowitz’s findings in the report, he still believed the Trump campaign was spied upon. 

“The inspector general’s report now makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken,” Barr said in a statement.

Trump, shortly after the report was released, ripped into his FBI director for agreeing with the report’s conclusions, which he said were “far worse than I would have ever thought possible.”

“I don’t know what report current Director of the FBI Christopher Wray was reading, but it sure wasn’t the one given to me,” Trump tweeted.

“It’s an embarrassment to our country,” he said of the findings while speaking to reporters Tuesday. “It’s dishonest, it’s everything that a lot of people thought it would be, except far worse.”

Comey and Wallace sparred over the Steele dossier's role in the FBI's investigation and FISA application.

Before Trump was sworn into office, a leaked and unverified 35-page dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele alleged the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to defeat Clinton in 2016 presidential election. It later became one of the starting points of Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Comey said the so-called “Steele dossier” was "not a huge part of the presentation to the court," but Wallace pointed out that according to the inspector general’s report, it played a central role in establishing probable cause for an investigation and FISA warrants. 

“In fact, he says, if it hadn't been for the Steele dossier, the FBI probably would haven't even submitted a FISA application,” Wallace said, referring to Horowitz.

“I’m not sure he and I are saying different things,” Comey responded. “What his report says is that the FBI thought it was a close call until they got the Steele report, put that additional information in and that tipped it over to be probable cause. It’s a long FISA application and includes Steele material and a lot of other things. I don’t think we’re saying different things.”

Comey also accused Wallace of mischaracterizing the dossier, which Wallace argued was not credible when the FISA applications were renewed. 

“I think you're mischaracterizing both what the FBI knew and what Mr. Horowitz says in his report,” Comey said. “They didn't conclude the reporting from Steele was bunk; they concluded there were significant questions about the reliability of some of the sub-source reporting. That should have been included in the renewals. But when I briefed the president, I briefed him on a small part of it that I told him I didn't know whether it was true or not; I didn't care. I just needed him to know about it.”

“Steele misstated or exaggerated the source's statements in multiple sections of the report,” Wallace shot back. “He's saying, ‘I told him one thing, and he wrote something else.’ The FBI knew that.”

“Yeah, but that doesn't drive a conclusion that Steele's reporting is bunk,” Comey said. 

When Wallace accused him of minimizing the significance of the Steele information, noting “[Horowitz is] saying it's a lot more important than you let on,” Comey apologized. 

“If I was, then I'm sorry that I did that,” he said. 

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