Comey Hearing: Little New, More Doubt About ‘RussiaGate’
Journalist, best-selling author Max Blumenthal and former FBI special agent Coleen Rowley say that while former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony offered almost nothing new, that won’t slow the fixation on Trump’s alleged Russia ties, not his actual policies.
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. In his long awaited senate testimony, former FBI Director James Comey said President Trump pressured him to drop the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Comey also said he takes the President at his word that he was fired over the Russia probe.
JAMES COMEY: I know I was fired because of something about the way I was conducting the Russian investigation was in some way putting pressure on him, and in some way irritating him, and he decided to fire me because of that. I can’t go farther than that.
AARON MATÉ: Comey also revealed he documented his private conversations with the president because he didn’t trust Trump to tell the truth. And he said he shared details of those conversations to spur a Special Council. Trump critics hope Comey’s testimony will help build the case for obstruction of justice. They’re also hoping for evidence of Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia, but no evidence of that has emerged, and Comey didn’t offer any today. In fact, he said in a New York Times report that Trump officials had contact with Russians is not true. Joining me are two guests.
Max Blumenthal is an award winning journalist, best selling author, and Senior Editor of AlterNet’s Grayzone Project, and Coleen Rowley was a Special Agent for the FBI from 1981 to 2004. She is well known for blowing the whistle on the FBI’s failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks. Welcome to you both. Max, I’ll start with you. Your impressions of Comey’s testimony today?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, the phrase that kept echoing in my head was Walter Mondale on Reagan’s economic plan, “Where’s the beef?” I want to know why Washington practically shut down and people were hanging out in bars playing drinking games for this testimony, when we didn’t really learn anything new. We learned that the investigation really focused on Michael Flynn. Only the Russian aspect of that investigation was even remotely discussed. While Flynn does possibly face investigation for not being forthright about his Turkey lobbying contract, we learned that Trump said in private what he also said in public, which is that he wants the investigators, the FBI, to lay off Flynn.
We learned that there was no investigation of Trump and that Trump pressured Comey to say so publicly. I don’t understand why there was no leak of the fact that there was no investigation of Trump, and finally we learned that Trump, according to Comey, was fine with the investigation proceeding. Then, there’s the other aspect that you see thousands of retweets about from mainstream Beltway journalists which is that the Muller investigation will look into whether Trump obstructed justice. Comey mentioned that it might do that, but it’s not clear that Trump is even under investigation for obstruction of justice, so beyond that, then we have just the allegation that Russia definitely hacked into the DNC server.
The big reveal there, which confirmed testimony that Comey gave earlier this year, is that the FBI, James Comey, the whole bureau, never had any access to the DNC server to investigate whether Russian hackers did indeed do that. This was kind of brushed over by not only the press, but by the Senate Republicans. There’s a lot to say about that, but I really don’t see why there’s so much focus on this when there’s so little beef there.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, Max. There’s a lot there, but on the point of the server, if the FBI didn’t access it, that meant it’s strictly under the control of this firm, Crowdstrike, right?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Right.
AARON MATÉ: Which has ties to the DNC, and they have been a major source for all these Russia hacking collusion claims.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, Comey under questioning from Senator Richard Burr, the Republican from North Carolina, admitted that his bureau did not have access to the DNC servers that had been hacked, which is amazing, because they could easily subpoena those servers if they wanted to. What wasn’t mentioned was number one, Crowdstrike was the firm that the FBI relied on. Comey just referred to a very well respected firm, and it’s not a very well respected firm. It’s a largely discredited firm that had to retract a report it issued subsequent to its DNC report, claiming that Russia hacked into Ukraine’s artillery guiding apparatus through an electronic application. The Ukrainian military denied that. The who’s who of officials who designed the application for the Ukraine military denied it, and the report was basically retracted.
Jeffrey Carr absolutely savaged the report on the DNC, so there’s no way that Crowdstrike’s report on the DNC servers is necessarily even credible itself. Beyond that, what is Crowdstrike? It’s run by Dmitri Alperovitch, a Russian exile, who is a partisan figure, dedicated to undermining government of Russia. He is housed at the Atlantic Council and militaristic thinktank in the Beltway, funding by NATO, Saudi Arabia, arms manufacturers, oil extraction industry, you name it. Also, funded by Victor Pinchuk. Ukrainian nationalist billionaire, and close friend of the Clintons who donated to the Clinton Foundation, and funded Bill Clinton’s birthday.
This firm is, in my opinion, partisan. It’s a for-profit firm, it’s shady, and for the FBI to rely entirely on this firm, and now for the whole mainstream media, the Senate, Senator Mark Warner, whoever alleged that there was Russian hacking of the DNC, to even make that allegation, this raises serious questions about why this investigation is proceeding. Now, let’s say Trump is obstructing justice, he’s probably doing it as Comey admitted because there’s a cloud over his administration and you can’t get anything done because of the Russia investigation. That’s what the Democrats want, but it doesn’t establish that there was collusion between the Trump administration and Russia, and it definitely doesn’t establish that Russia hacked into the DNC servers. We need to see those servers and we need to ask why the FBI hasn’t subpoenad them, and what was their business with Crowdstrike?
AARON MATÉ: Coleen Rowley, you’re a former FBI Special Agent. Your thoughts on today’s hearing?
COLEEN ROWLEY: Well, I totally agree with Max Blumenthal. I notice there were a lot of contradictions in Comey’s testimony, and I wished I had been in the room to have shouted out a couple of questions. For instance, when Comey admitted that he was actually the one who directed the leak of his important memo written about Flynn’s being fired, that he had made sure that this went into a memo and then later of course, we all learned about that memo. When he testified that he told a colleague to give it to the press in order to get a special council, that should have been followed up on.
I mean, there were many possible follow-up questions. One of which was, “How many other leaks are you aware of? How many other leaks were you personally involved in as you were involved in the leak of your own memo?” Of course, nobody asks those questions. Another contradiction was when Comey testified that he had told Sessions that he was afraid to be alone with Trump. The story now is that on January 6th, it was purposely set up that Comey would be alone with Trump in order to brief him on what today he only called the “salacious memo.” He called it the “salacious information.” Now, that actually has to refer to the Steele dossier, and if you think about it, and actually Comey even testified, “Well, I didn’t want to be seen as J. Edgar Hoover.” What is he referring to? He’s referring to the fact that Hoover used sex-related blackmail, even on people like Martin Luther King.
So, when this January 6th meeting occurs between—alone, by the way, at the end of it, it’s alone with Comey and Trump—he tells him what they have on him, and not only does he tell them the sex-related dossier, but he says, “It’s going to be leaked to the press right away. That’s why we’re telling you.” If you put yourself into Trump’s position, or going back to when this happened to Martin Luther King Jr.’s position, you can see where Trump is obviously alarmed. Now, Comey testifies that’s why he decides to keep memos. I mean, again, the contradiction, there’s another contradiction here which is that when Comey and Muller have been through everything in the Bush administration after 9/11, where a form of martial law was instituted through John Yoo’s memos, and they learned of this, they learned about torture tactics, they learned about warrantless monitoring and all of the other highly illegal things that were taking place, it never occurred to James Comey that he should document things in a memo then. But now when he’s briefing Trump on an unverified, salacious piece of information that he says he’s going to leak to the media right away, then he knows he has to document it. I mean, if I had been in the room, I would have asked a few questions about this because Comey is using…Maybe he’s unwitting too, in a way. Maybe he’s not even realizing that he has been used to some extent for these purposes, but he’s also a part of a whole ambiance here, where there is a lot of leaking, probably a lot of it is the same way Comey leaks, second hand, third hand, so that they are not the direct contacts with the media. I think there were a lot of questions that could have been asked that weren’t, and I totally agree that this is media hyperventilation, and the public has never learned, other than through this one report that they put out in January. All that really focused on was Russian media.
It focused on the fact that Russian media is propaganda, and that it, the media itself influenced the election. There was absolutely little or no proof shown, no evidence shown of any real hacking into the DNC, no proof or evidence of that.
AARON MATÉ: Echoing on the point of Comey memo, and deliberately leaking, he also said that that was a deliberate decision because he wanted to spur a special council. Basically him saying there that he’s joining the ranks of Edward Snowden who also leaked because he wanted to see investigations and things changed.
COLEEN ROWLEY: That’s exactly right. He could have been asked, “Did you have a special council in mind? Was that special council that you had in mind that you were attempting to get, was that one of your closest confidants and close colleagues, Robert Muller?” He certainly is not shy about touting how great Robert Muller is. They go all the way back, decades. They’ve stood together in different situations, they both unfortunately, I’ve written about this, but the media has a big forget right now in all of the debacles that they’ve actually been involved in. Muller has been criticized any number of times in front page stories for national security letters, for the anthrax investigation, going after the wrong person, even for his involvement in the Whitey Bulger investigation decades ago.
None of the media’s remembering that these are not the pillars of integrity that they are made out to be, and who knows if they haven’t talked or colluded before this. We don’t know. No one asked him about that.
AARON MATÉ: Max, I want to play for you what I thought was a really striking moment, which is when Senator Angus King was questioning Comey, and King asked Comey whether closing out the Flynn investigation would hurt the Russia investigation. Comey’s answer to me was quite important. This is what happened.
ANGUS KING: Would closing out the Flynn investigation have impeded the overall Russian investigation?
JAMES COMEY: No. Unlikely, except to the extent … There’s always a possibility if you have a criminal case against someone, and you bring in and squeeze them, you flip them, and they give you information about something else, but I saw the two as touching each other, but separate.
AARON MATÉ: Max, that to me was an important moment because the assumption all along amongst Trump’s Democratic critics especially was that he was leaning on Comey to stop investgating Flynn because he wanted to stop the Russia investigation. Here Comey is saying is that Flynn and the Russia investigation are touching each other, but separate, and that stopping the Flynn investigation would not impede the overall Russia investigation.
MAX BLUMENTHALl: Right, but what would be left of the Russia investigation? It appears to focus almost entirely around Flynn, and then there’s a lot of speculation about other figures like Carter Page, Jared Kushner, who appears to have done something completely normal within the world of diplomacy, although it’s abnormal that the son-in-law of the president gets that role, but seeking a back channel with the Russian ambassador to basically handle deconfliction and deescalation in Syria seems to be completely within the realms of diplomatic protocol, or diplomatic precedent, if you consider that Henry Kissinger had done the same thing with Moscow.
But here with Flynn, you have the only abnormal aspect, he had made a phone call to Ambassador Kislyak while he was out of the country, so his phone was tapped through a FISA court, and it proved that he had lied to Mike Pence who was in charge of vetting the new administration about contacts with foreign officials, but the FBI investigated that call, this was reported in the Washington Post in January, and found that nothing illicit took place there. Sanctions were discussed but nothing illicit, meaning illegal, took place in the call. I’m not sure what’s there. Comey was asked later, I don’t remember who the senator was, but it was a very revealing question. “Was the Flynn investigation close to being closed?” Comey said as he did over and over, that he was not comfortable discussing that in an open hearing.
That senator likely knew something about the investigation into Flynn being nearly closed. If the investigation into Flynn were closed, I don’t know what the Democrats would have to hang their hats on, really. I mean, Flynn took $40,000 from the Russian government to appear at RT’s 10th anniversary, and that was a speaking fee through his speaker’s bureau. He had that call with Kislyak. I don’t know what else is there, except that he lied to Pence. Again, when we’re talking about collusion with Russia here, I haven’t seen anything concrete, and the closest they have to that relationship is with Flynn who just seems to be an erratic figure who is obviously not above board ethically.
The idea of collusion is absurd, and once again, it seems absurd based on what they’d produced. As Coleen mentioned, there is the ODNI report, the director of National Intelligence tried to prove what the 17 intelligence agencies had said was high confidence that Russia had hacked into or attempted to influence the election. By the way, among those 17 agencies is the Coast Guard. They’re really savvy Russia sleuths. Anyway, the ODNI report, as Coleen mentioned, 8 of the 23 pages dealt with RT, the Russian TV news outlet, which has a bureau in Washington and most of those 8 pages related to breaking the set show, by left wing broadcast personality and journalist Abby Martin, whose show was canceled two years ago, two years before the report was even issued, two years before the election.
The report was absolute trash and no one mentions that it was trash, just as no one even bothers to mention that the 17 intelligence agencies just simply said they had high confidence. Again, where’s the beef?
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, Coleen, I’m wondering if you can pick up on that.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Or the borscht. Where’s the borscht?
AARON MATÉ: Where’s the … Coleen, I’m wondering if you want to pick up on that and respond to this clip that I played of Comey saying that closing down the Flynn investigation wouldn’t really impact the Russia investigation, which as Max says, it makes you wonder what’s actually there?
COLEEN ROWLEY: Yeah. I wasn’t sure when Comey testified, if there wasn’t some false statement. The same type of thing that got Scooter Libby into trouble. If the FBI had somehow talked to Flynn and he had said something similar to what he said to Pence, then maybe they were trying to make that into a false statement to the FBI. I wasn’t sure about that, but Comey also testified, and you just replayed it, that there was a chance that they were going to squeeze Flynn. So that means you’re trying to flip him then. You say you have information that’s incriminating about him, and then he will cooperate, and then tell you about whatever other collusion he might know about.
Of course, that was Comey’s answer there, and obviously that’s always the case, but it’s still in a case like this, where you have a President who really should be focusing on the terrorism problem. We have all kinds of attacks taking place in Europe, and now even in Iran, and elsewhere. We have really important things and to spend hours and really again, to suck all of the oxygen out of the media, out of the Trump administration, and their ability to really do anything that’s helpful here, to reduce terrorism, especially when it’s getting so bad, I think is unconscionable. I think this whole thing right now, if it’s not more than this report castigating the Russian media and saying they must be after us because we’re the shining city on the hill, if there’s nothing more than that, really the politicians in Washington really should get back to work and stop trying to use this political soap opera.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah Max, on that point, your thoughts on this? Especially in the context of what Democrats chief focus has been. Jennifer Palmieri who was a top official on the Clinton campaign famously said that, “We should focus on Russia above all else.”
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Above all else.
AARON MATÉ: You just went to this rally in Washington D.C. this past weekend, did a great report for us here on The Real News, speaking to protesters, demanding the truth about Trump and Russia. Representation of what a top issue this has been amongst Democratic voters.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, and to pick up on Coleen’s point, two days ago Iran was attacked by ISIS. There was a slaughter in the Iranian parliament by ISIS, weeks after Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, warned that his country, that Saudi Arabia would strike inside Iran. This is as Qatar is under siege by land and air, as Turkish troops are moving into Qatar, to prevent a Saudi land invasion. Trump has taken credit for this disastrous and terrifying escalation in the Middle East, and not only that, in his two line statement which should have been read by Marlon Brando in the voice of Don Corleone, Trump said that countries that support terror, like Iran, deserve what they get.
Trump endorsed an ISIS attack and echoed ISIS propaganda. It’s the most vile thing I can remember an American President saying almost ever. It’s more vile than anything that upset liberals that Trump said, and we hear very little noise about it. Comey has sucked up all the oxygen, Russia’s sucked up all the oxygen, and let’s not forget Russia was desperate to coordinate with the United States against ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria, and we blew up that deal. Now, Jared Kushner, who I have absolutely no sympathy for, nothing but contempt for this figure, had attempted to establish a diplomatic back channel to take on ISIS and Al-Qaeda with Russia, and work out a deal in Syria.
He is now paying the price. Our national security state is behind this escalation, Trump is taking credit for it, and it just seems like no one is concerned within the mainstream media. I went to this rally as you mentioned, Rally For Truth on the National Mall two days ago. It was to get liberals excited, the resistance, the organized grassroots of the Democratic Party, get them excited about the Comey testimony and putting more pressure on Trump. What I saw there, and mostly older liberals, the kind of people who watch Rachel Maddow, as you wrote Aaron, in a really excellent report, most of her content is dedicated to Russia and her ratings are through the roof.
These are the same kind of people that I would meet at anti-war rallies over 10 years ago, the same kind of people that would go out and protest climate change and the denial of it, the same kind of people who would show up at Black Lives Matter rallies, and their energy is being chanelled into a militaristic neoconservative narrative, and the keynote speaker was supposed to be the star progressive of the senate, Jamie Raskin from Takoma Park, one of the most liberal districts in America, the son of Marcus Raskin, the Founder of IPS, the leftie thinktank in Washington. He gets up and calls for regime change in Venezuela, Philippines, two countries with democratically elected governments, and of course Syria, and he says Russia is the head of the axis of evil in he called it the “unfree world.”
He just got up and sounded like a complete neocon, and when I confronted him on it, his whole argument fell apart, so what the hell is happening with progressives? We can’t just see this Russia investigation within a vacuum in Congress, or within a partisan bubble. It’s corrosive to the entire composition and direction of the progressive movement, the base of the Democratic Party, and it’s toxic to our political culture in general, and it’s not only overshadowing the fact that we stand on the brink of war, of a regional war in the Middle East, it is actually part of the narrative that’s pushing us towards war with the only country in the world that’s capable of striking us with nuclear weapons and destroying us all.
AARON MATÉ: Max, just tying two issues that you raised there together, you mentioned President Trump’s response to the Iran attack was to essentially suggest that the Iranian government was responsible for it. Then, you had Democrats response to the Iran attack which came in the form of this vote yesterday in the Senate. Many Democrats joining Republicans to vote for beginning debate on imposing new sanctions on Iran, the same day as the attack.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Bernie Sanders was one of the only senators to stand up against the sanctions which were completely unnecessary. The sanctions are punishing Iran for having free and fair elections, and reelecting the the liberal President Hassan Rouhani, and ratifying this process of internal reform. It’s punishing Iran, only six senators stood with Bernie Sanders, and he said, “How dare we do this on the day that Iran was attacked by the force that is supposed to be our adversary?” It was the force that Trump said that he would smash, that he would destroy, and we’re talking about ISIS.
When Trump went to Riyadh, in the heart of this fake global counterterrorist center, what he did was downgrade ISIS on the threat level and upgrade Iran, a country that’s cooperating with us in the fight against ISIS, which has just signed a landmark nuclear deal with us, and so I wonder where is the concern for national security within the national security state? This is all about empire, and it’s not only delusional, it’s incredibly dangerous. The Russia hysteria that’s been stoked even by progressive media is of a part with it.
AARON MATÉ: Coleen Rowley, taking this back to Comey, your final thoughts on what we saw today and where you want to see the conversation go around the Trump/Russia investigation going forward?
COLEEN ROWLEY: Well, I would hope that people would pick up on Max Blumenthal’s last thoughts which I totally agree with. This is simply distracting from the real issues. This war on terror that began, by the way, with Muller onboard and Comey onboard shortly thereafter, doing some terrible things, has actually increased terrorism exponentially, and because there’s no good journalism and there’s no good writing about this, certainly not good questions by the politicians. They are all distracted by this new wrinkle on Russia, completely distracted. No one is dealing with the real problem, and the real problem is that Al-Qaeda and its like groups in the Mideast is going full force. We’re actually making things worse, and so I would like to see it go where you do have some people starting to write about this.
I think right now we do need a little more bipartisan … We need less of the war mongering Rachel Maddow bipartisanship, and we need some more critical thinking to break through this groupthink that Max just described so well.
AARON MATÉ: Well, that’s what we’re all trying to do, and we really appreciate you both joining us for this discussion. Max Blumenthal, award winning journalist, best-selling author, Senior Editor of AlterNet’s Grayzone Project, and Coleen Rowley, a former special agent for the FBI. Thanks to you both.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Thanks a lot.
COLEEN ROWLEY: Thanks.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.