“I don’t know that a special counsel is warranted at this point,” House Oversight chair Jason Chaffetz told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s Good Morning America, although Chaffetz calls Robert Mueller “an excellent choice” for the position. Stephanopoulos asks how he can support Mueller but oppose the naming of a special counsel at all, especially after Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey and the reports of his memo about their meeting in February, in which Trump asked if Comey could let Flynn off the hook. Chaffetz then points out that the investigation has continued despite Comey’s removal, and called into question whether the memo exists at all, and what it actually means:
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“I think in the light of day in a public setting he should be able to tell us about the materials, if they’re there, and I question whether or not they’re actually there,” he said, adding that he has yet to hear back from Comey about his request for public testimony, which he hopes to schedule for next week.
According to a memo whose existence and content was first reported on by The New York Times on Tuesday and later confirmed to ABC by sources close to Comey, the former FBI director was asked in March by President Trump to drop the bureau’s investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Trump fired Comey as director last week.
When questioned by “GMA” host George Stephanopoulos about his skepticism about the Comey documents, Chaffetz said, “Well nobody’s seen them. Even the reporter that did the story hasn’t seen them. Nobody that I know of, even the reporter, has not actually seen those documents.
“I want to look at the information and hear from the person who actually wrote it [the memo in question],” Chaffetz said. “I think that’s the fair way Republicans and Democrats can look in the light of day in a public setting.”
Comey is known to be an inveterate memo writer, so it’s almost certain to exist. Whether it says what it does and whether it carries the meaning assigned to it by others can’t be known until it’s produced publicly. Even the news outlets that did report on the memo did so blind, having no access to the memo itself but instead relying on others who related its meaning. That’s why Chaffetz and Senate Intel chair Richard Burr have requested that the FBI turn over all of Comey’s memos-to-file during his three-plus years as FBI director, both to see precisely what he claims Trump said and the context of Comey’s own self-reporting.
There’s another reason to be skeptical that the memo says what the news media has reported, too. On May 3rd, almost three months after the meeting that Comey memorialized in the document, Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) asked him directly whether there had been any political influence on the FBI’s investigations. Comey said it would be a big deal if it had happened — but that it hadn’t:
HIRONO: Yes. And so speaking of the independence of not just the judiciary but I’d like you to clarify the FBI’s independence from the DOJ apparatus. Can the FBI conduct an investigation independent from the department of Justice. Or does the FBI have to disclose all it’s investigations to the DOJ? And does it have to get the Attorney General’s consent?
COMEY: Well we work with the Department of Justice, whether that’s main justice or U.S. attorney’s offices on all of our investigations. And so we work with them and so in a legal sense we’re not independent of the department of justice. We are spiritually, culturally pretty independent group and that’s the way you would want tit. But yes, we work with the Department of Justice on all of our investigations.
HIRONO: So if the Attorney General or senior officials at the Department of Justice opposes a specific investigation, can they halt that FBI investigation?
COMEY: In theory yes.
HIRONO: Has it happened?
COMEY: Not in my experience. Because it would be a big deal to tell the FBI to stop doing something that — without an appropriate purpose. I mean where oftentimes they give us opinions that we don’t see a case there and so you ought to stop investing resources in it. But I’m talking about a situation where we were told to stop something for a political reason, that would be a very big deal. It’s not happened in my experience.
One can see why Chaffetz has some skepticism over the reports, and it’s not just from the sourcing of the stories. Had Comey considered Trump’s actions to be improper attempts to politically interfere with his probe of Michael Flynn, then not only would he have been duty bound to report it at that time to Congress, but he would also have had to answer Hirono’s direct question in the affirmative. That doesn’t mean that Trump’s suggestion wasn’t inappropriate (if it happened as reports say) but that even three months later Comey didn’t see it as an attempt at political interference.
At this point, it doesn’t pay to jump to conclusions in any direction. Congressional committees have demanded the memos, and if they don’t get them, subpoenas will undoubtedly follow. Let those chips fall where they may, but from the evidence at hand, don’t get your hopes too high for a major bombshell … at least from that memo.
Addendum: Chaffetz may not stick around long enough to run the probe on the House side. According to Politico’s Jake Sherman, Chaffetz has told colleagues that he’s leaving the House early after earlier announcing his intention to retire. The timing of his departure is still unclear.