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Facts on Comey firing: Lost in speculation

Facts on Comey firing: Lost in speculation

By TATIANA PROPHET

The whirlwind of relevant reportage on the exit of erstwhile FBI director James Comey all started with an article posted late Monday night by the news site Pro Publica, quoting two anonymous sources as saying that Comey gave inaccurate testimony last week before a Senate committee regarding Huma Abedin's handling of State Department e-mails.

"According to two sources familiar with the matter -- including one in law enforcement -- Abedin forwarded only a handful of Clinton emails to her husband for printing -- not the "hundreds and thousands" cited by Comey," wrote Peter Elkind, special to Pro Publica.

Pro Publica, tagline "News in the public interest," has already garnered four Pulitzer prizes since its founding 2008. Headquartered in Manhattan, by its own account it's a nonprofit consisting of 50 journalists on staff. Board members are a who's who of established media and business leaders, and a main donor is banker Herbert Sandler, who is also the founding chairman.

By Tuesday morning, the Washington Post had published its own story repeating -- and by some accounts verifying -- the Pro Publica story. A letter by the FBI's assistant director of Congressional affairs, Gregory A Brower, to committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa.), soon followed into the public record intending to "supplement" Comey's testimony.

It turns out that most of the e-mails on Abedin's laptop, which triggered that infamous letter by Comey to Congress on October 28, ended up there because of an automatic backup of her personal electronic device, the letter said. Of the 49,000 e-mails on the laptop, investigators determined that two e-mail chains containing classified information had been manually forwarded, and ten other e-mail chains containing classified information were found on the laptop as a result of back-up activity.

"All 12 chains previously had been reviewed by investigators," Brower wrote.

Brower also clarified testimony Comey gave regarding the number of investigations the FBI was conducting that involved refugees in the United States. Comey had mentioned 1,000 cases involving "homegrown" violent extremists, and 1,000 cases involving individuals with suspected ties to ISIS. The letter clarifies that separately, there are 300 cases involving persons who entered the U.S. as refugees "from approximately 25 countries."

View a scan of the FBI letter on Comey's testimony here.

Then Tuesday afternoon, the news alert hit. President Trump had fired James Comey. Then came the memo released by the White House showing a recommendation by newly appointed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to AG Jeff Sessions titled "Restoring public confidence in the FBI."

The memo, noting that both parties have criticized Comey's actions, outlined the mistakes he made regarding the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, namely, his decision to hold a press conference on July 5 of last year in which he "announced that the case would be closed without prosecution." Attorney General Loretta Lynch had stepped away from the e-mail case after it was revealed she met with former President Bill Clinton on the tarmac in Phoenix after their planes landed.

"Compounding the error, the Director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation," wrote Rosenstein, who was the Maryland attorney general under Bush and Obama and was recently confirmed by the Senate in a vote of 96 to 4.

"The FBI Director is never empowered to supplant federal prosecutors and assume command of the Justice Department," Rosenstein continued. He then quoted multiple former attorney generals as criticizing Comey for his handling of the matters, including his letter of October 28, saying it went contrary to handling of investigations in an election year.

As to the timing of the firing, Rosenstein wrote that after Comey's May 3 testimony, it was clear Comey was not going to acknowledge his mistakes.

"The FBI is unlikely to regain public and Congressional trust until it has a Director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them. Having refused to admit his errors, the Director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions."

On May 3, Comey doubled down on his decision to send the letter to Congress in October, saying he would send the letter again if faced with the same decision.

The memo was accompanied by a letter from Sessions recommending Comey's removal, and a letter from the President to Comey firing him "effective immediately."

One topic is not covered in any of the materials from the Justice Department: the topic of Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.

But it instantly became the focus of outrage at the firing. Democrats quickly voiced that the investigation was compromised. Many compared the firing to Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre in which he removed key figures in the Watergate investigation (we all know how well that ended for Nixon).

Speculation that Trump had spearheaded the firing, and put Rosenstein up to the memo, was swift. Multiple anonymous reports emerged stating Trump fired Comey after a week of anger at him over a lack of loyalty and his dogged pursuit of the Russia investigation. Wrote Jake Tapper, it was because he did not receive assurance of "personal loyalty" from the director, and that the investigation into his campaign's ties with Russia "was accelerating."

The New York TImes' Matt Apuzzo and Matthew Rosenstein broke the news on Wednesday that Comey had requested more resources for the Russia investigation from none other than new deputy AG Rosenstein. They quoted Sen. Richard Durbin, Democrat from Illinois as saying: "I’m told that as soon as Rosenstein arrived, there was a request for additional resources for the investigation, and that a few days afterward, he was sacked. I think the Comey operation was breathing down the neck of the Trump campaign and their operatives, and this was an effort to slow down the investigation.” This quote from Sen. Durbin is one of the very few direct quotes from a named source in all the reporting on this matter.

Slate magazine writer Leon Neyfakh, citing published reports from the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Politico, closed the case on Trump cynically using the sincere and well-liked Rosenstein for his own grimy purposes of ending the Russia investigation. But according to Apuzzo and Rosenstein, the investigation is anything but ended. Senators have accelerated their requests for information, subpoenaing Michael Flynn and asking the Treasury Department's financial crimes unit for information on Trump's financial dealings. Watch for the committee's annual hearing on worldwide threats on Thursday.

And the Washington Post cited more than 20 anonymous accounts of Trump's developing vendetta for the FBI director.

On a side note, Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday in the Oval Office -- garnering much Internet outrage. Well, the Washington Post reported on the meeting before it was to take place. And the meeting itself got more attention because a Russian news photographer got in to the Oval Office. The White House claimed that the photographer was presented as Lavrov's personal photographer. As everyone might remember from way back about a month ago, Trump ordered the bombing of a Syrian airfield, angering the Russians. It was nice to see Secretary of State Rex Tillerson smiling again after his tense moments in Moscow. Trump's comments about working together to end the bloodshed in Syria did manage to get some ink, though not nearly as much as all the speculation that has ensued about the Comey firing.

On the Washington Post's opinion page The Fix, Callum Borchers even suggested that Trump had authorized the anonymous FBI leak to Pro Publica from Monday night, revealing that Comey had made an error in his testimony. Yet logic tells us that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. Still, it is odd that the info on Comey's testimony came out right before news of the firing. But it ended up being true; the FBI did correct the record in a letter to Chairman Grassley. It's hard to see Trump authorized the leak or not, since the letter came out about 12 hours later. It's hard to imagine the FBI not correcting that record, frankly.

It's also hard not to believe the cannon barrage of anonymous reports suggesting an underhanded tinge to Trump's firing of James Comey. A free and independent press is essential to getting to the truth. Instead we're getting whispers among the marble.
 

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