Justice Department Watchdog Says Comey Violated FBI Policies In Handling Trump Memos

Aug 29, 2019
Originally published on August 29, 2019 7:14 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Justice Department's inspector general has a report out today on former FBI Director James Comey. The report sharply criticizes Comey and his handling of memos he wrote about his interactions with Donald Trump.

NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas has read through the report, top to bottom. He's here now. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: All right, so the inspector general is Michael Horowitz. This is his report. What was he investigating, specifically?

LUCAS: So the inspector general was investigating whether Comey had improperly handled memos that he wrote documenting one-on-one conversations that he had had with Donald Trump. Comey wrote these memos directly after the conversations, he says, in order to have a record of them. There are seven memos in all. The first one is from January of 2017; the last one dates to April of 2017.

The existence of these memos became a huge deal, you may remember, back in May of 2017, after Trump fired Comey. The New York Times reported details from one memo in which Trump allegedly asked Comey to end the investigation into Trump's first national security adviser - that's Michael Flynn. Comey later told Congress that he had orchestrated the release of that information to a friend, and he did so, he said, to put pressure on the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel for the Russia investigation, which it did, of course. And the memos, these memos that Comey wrote, became a key piece of evidence in that special counsel investigation.

KELLY: OK. So what did the inspector general find as he investigated that led him to be so sharply critical?

LUCAS: Well, he found that Comey violated Justice Department and FBI policies in how he handled these memos. And he did so by holding onto them after he was fired, by sharing copies of them with his personal lawyers. Comey also violated department rules when he used an intermediary, this friend of his, to share the contents of a memo with The New York Times. By doing that, Comey was disclosing statements attributed to the president that Comey did not have authorization to disclose. And that information, the inspector general emphasizes, was relevant to ongoing FBI investigations, including, of course, whether the president had obstructed justice.

Comey told the inspector general that he would frame this whole discussion differently, the way that he views this matter. He's quoted in the report as saying that he viewed this as an issue of national importance and that he thought that he had to do something out of his love for the country and his love for the FBI and the Justice Department.

KELLY: So just to make sure I'm clear - writing the memos themselves, that was fine, but he shouldn't have held onto them after he left office, and he shouldn't have shared them with reporters.

LUCAS: Correct.

KELLY: That's the gist of this. OK. I mean, the thing about this - the memos, Ryan, is that they, of course, became the basis for President Trump's accusations that Jim Comey is a leaker. What did the facts tell us? As the inspector general investigated, did he conclude Comey was a leaker?

LUCAS: The inspector general says in the report that he found no evidence that Comey or his attorneys released any classified information to the media. That said, there is a lot, a lot of scathing language in this report directed at Comey and how he handled these memos. Comey told the IG that he thought the memos were personal records, something akin to a diary. He kept copies of four of the memos in his personal safe at his house. The IG says that is wholly incompatible with the plain language of the law, said the documents were very clearly FBI records, says Comey disclosed sensitive law enforcement information to his personal lawyers. A small amount of that information, according to the inspector general, was later deemed to be confidential by the FBI.

The big picture, though, here is that the inspector general says Comey failed to live up to his responsibility to protect sensitive information. He says, by not safeguarding it and using it instead to create public pressure to get a special counsel appointed, that Comey set a dangerous example for FBI employees. Important to note, though, at the end, that the DOJ has this information and decided not to charge Comey with any crime.

KELLY: All right. Thank you, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR's Ryan Lucas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.