James Comey says that it is “good news” that Special Counsel Robert Mueller found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian government.
But in an interview that aired Wednesday, the former FBI director also defended opening the probe, saying that there was “enough smoke” that the bureau had to investigate whether Trump associates conspired with the Kremlin to influence the 2016 election.
“I didn’t know what answer the special counsel would arrive at. When I was fired, we hadn’t finished the work so I didn’t know what conclusion it would end up at,” Comey told NBC News’ Lester Holt.
“I think it’s good he was able to finish the work and establish both that the Russia thing wasn’t a hoax. That the Russians interfered in the election in a huge way, and that’s really important. And then another piece of good news, the evidence didn’t establish that any Americans conspired as part of that effort. That should be good news no matter what party you’re associated with.”
On Sunday, Attorney General William Barr submitted a summary of Mueller’s investigation to Congress. The summary said that Mueller found no evidence of a conspiracy between President Trump, his associates or any Americans and the Russian government’s efforts to steal Democrats’ emails.
Mueller did not arrive at a final decision on the question of obstruction of justice. He deferred the matter to Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Barr said the Justice Department will decline charges on obstruction in part because there was no underlying crime — collusion — to obstruct.
Trump’s firing of Comey on May 9, 2017 was the catalyst for the obstruction portion of the investigation. Mueller was appointed special counsel on May 17, 2017. Comey has admitted that he leaked memos of his conversations with Trump in order to force the appointment of a special counsel.
“But was it good news for the investigation you started? Did you go back after hearing this and say, maybe there wasn’t a there there like I thought?” Holt asked.
“Oh, no,” said Comey. “The investigation had to happen. It would have been irresponsible not to investigate.”
Comey said that he “really didn’t know” whether Trump associates conspired with Russians at the time he was fired. The bureau opened its counterintelligence investigation on July 31, 2016 after receiving a tip from the Australian government about George Papadopoulos, a campaign aide.
Alexander Downer, who then served as Australia’s top diplomat to the U.K., claimed that during a May 10, 2016 meeting with Papadopoulos in London, the Trump adviser mentioned that Russia had information on Hillary Clinton.
The Aussie sent that information to their American counterparts after WikiLeaks began releasing DNC emails in July 2016.
“And then we learn, that a Trump campaign advisor had spoken to a Russian operative about the dirt they had on Hillary Clinton. Before any of us knew anything about it. How on earth would the FBI leave that alone,” Comey said.
“There was smoke, and enough smoke to justify investigating, and obviously there was overwhelming evidence that the Russians were interfering in the election to hurt one candidate and help the other. Whether Americans were conspiring with them I didn’t know, but we had to look at that.”
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