The questions Comey didn’t answer are as important as the ones he did

What he said.
What he said.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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Ousted FBI director James Comey answered dozens of questions during his over two-hour testimony to the Senate intelligence committee today. But the ones that he refused to answer raise plenty of questions themselves—from whether there’s more to learn about Jeff Sessions’s contacts with Russian officials to what parts of the infamous “golden showers” intelligence report might be true.

Comey sometimes seemed to stoke the intrigue, often following up his refusal to comment on a direct question with an intriguing aside about why, or an explanation of the problems that would occur if such a thing were, perhaps, to happen.

Why did Comey end the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server?

Answering Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican, Comey said former president Bill Clinton’s June 2016 tarmac meeting with attorney general Loretta Lynch pushed him to publicly end the investigation in July of 2016, “to protect the credibility of the investigation.” Then he added, “there were other things that contributed to that. One significant item I can’t [disclose] but know the committee’s been briefed on.”

Are any aspects of the “golden showers” report accurate, and what was Comey’s reaction when he read it?

Burr also asked Comey if the FBI could confirm any of the criminal allegations in the unverified “golden showers” intelligence report published in January. That report, by a former MI6 Russian expert, was reviewed by US intelligence experts and circulated to journalists earlier. One of the most serious allegations from the dossier was that Russia had been “cultivating, supporting, and assisting” Trump for five years.

Comey demurred to answer, saying he couldn’t go into the details in an “open setting,” because “it goes into the details of the investigation.” He did say, however, “If the FBI receives a credible allegation that there is some effort to co-opt, coerce, direct, employee covertly an American on behalf of the foreign power, that’s the basis on which a counterintelligence investigation is opened.”

Does “hoping” for an outcome count as obstruction of justice?

“Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where they said or thought they hoped for an outcome?” asked James Risch, the Republican senator from Idaho. Comey answered that he “didn’t know well enough to answer,” and then added “The reason I keep saying his words is I took it as a direction… I took it as, this is what he wants me to do.”

Risch confirmed, twice, that Trump had used the word “hope” rather than a more commanding verb.

If such charges are ever filed against Trump, expect them to hinge on the difference between Trump’s exact words and Comey interpretation of them.

Did the Trump administration try to set up a backdoor channel with Russia?

Asked by Martin Heinrich, the New Mexico Democrat, what the risks would be to setting up a “backdoor communication channel with the Russian government using their infrastructure, their devices, their facilities,” Comey said he “couldn’t comment on whether that happened in an open setting.” (The Washington Post reported on May 26 (paywall) that Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner discussed setting up such a channel between the transition team and the Kremlin.)

Then Comey started talking about the “obvious” risks of such a (hypothetical) backchannel. “You spare the Russians the cost and effort to break into our communications channels by using theirs,” he said. “You make it a whole lot easier for them to capture all of your conversations. Then to use those to the benefit of Russia against the United States.”

Did attorney general Jeff Sessions properly recuse himself from the investigation?

Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat, grilled Comey about why he didn’t tell Sessions about his troubling interactions with the president, before Sessions recused himself. (Sessions said in March he would recuse himself from “any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States,” after it became public that he lied during his Senate confirmation hearing about contact with Russian officials.) Comey answered:

Our judgment, as I recall, is that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an opening setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.

When asked how he would “characterize attorney general Sessions’s adherence to his recusal,” Comey said it was a question he “could not answer,” but then added he thought is was a “reasonable” question. “If, as the president said, I was fired because of the Russia investigation, why was the attorney general involved in that chain?” he said.

How crucial is Michael Flynn to the investigation?

Comey declined to answer when Angus King, the Maine independent, asked him whether Flynn “was and is a central figure in this entire investigation.” But later, when King asked “would closing out the Flynn investigation have impeded the overall Russian investigation?” Comey replied:

No. Well, unlikely, except to the extent—there is always a possibility if you have a criminal case against someone and squeeze them, flip them and they give you information about something else.

Flynn has already been subpoenaed by the Senate committee, but refused on grounds he could incriminate himself.

Does he believe Donald Trump or his associates colluded with Russia?

Asked the direct question by Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican, Comey replied, “That’s a question I don’t think I should answer in an open setting.” Then he added, “As I said, when I left, we did not have an investigation focused on President Trump. But that’s a question that will be answered by the investigation, I think.”

Have Trump or his associates failed to disclose other contacts with Russians, or destroyed evidence?

Kamala Harris, the California Democrat, asked whether Comey was aware of any “meetings between the Trump administration officials and Russia officials during the campaign” that have not been acknowledged. Comey said “even if I remembered clearly, that’s not a question I can answer in open setting.”

He repeated the same answer when Harris asked him whether Trump campaign associates used encryption to hide communication with Russian officials, or whether the FBI has come across any evidence that the White House destroyed evidence.

Harris’s rapid-fire questions about issues she knows Comey can’t answer (she’s a former attorney general), seem designed to push information into the public domain. These are issues the Senate investigation may follow-up on.