When the White House asked the FBI to publicly refute news reports that associates of President Donald Trump, including campaign staff, engaged in possibly illegal contacts with Russian intelligence, Director James Comey refused.
But the interaction between the White House and the nation’s top law enforcement agency puts Comey squarely in the political crosshairs—again.
Last fall, Comey infamously disclosed the FBI’s renewed investigation of emails relating to Hillary Clinton days before the presidential election, a decision many Democrats blame for Clinton’s narrow loss to Trump.
In the current case, Comey has remained silent while the White House has alleged that it was one of his top deputies who first flagged doubts about a New York Times story on the Russian contacts to Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus, who in turn asked for help knocking the story down—a move that could raise questions about the integrity of the agency’s investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The FBI did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The partisan sensitivity surrounding the questions of the Trump team’s connections with Russia makes it virtually impossible for Comey to do anything — even to do nothing — without his actions being viewed as somehow political.
“He wants to be the honest broker. That’s what’s in his heart,” said a senior Justice Department official. “But he’s having a hard time doing that. He keeps getting accused of doing things wrong, especially when going the extra mile to try to do things right.”
On Friday, the Washington Post reported that after Comey refused to get involved, the White House successfully turned to other intelligence officials, as well as to congressional Republicans with access to intelligence reports on the Russia probes, for help pushing back on the Feb. 14 New York Times story, which alleged months-long contacts between Trump associates and Russian intelligence.
White House officials have denied any wrongdoing, saying they were merely trying to set the record straight on what they believed to be unfair stories.
Trump himself attacked the FBI on Friday morning, tweeting that the agency was unable to find “leakers.”
The tweets followed a CNN report late Thursday detailing contacts between FBI assistant director Andrew McCabe—who, like Comey, was appointed by Obama—and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus over the Times story.
Longstanding White House and Department of Justice policies forbid most contact between the White House and the FBI without legal clearance, specifically to avoid the impression of interference with ongoing investigations.
On Friday, the White House told reporters that it was McCabe who initially volunteered to Priebus on Feb. 15 that the FBI believed the Times report was “bullshit.” Spicer also reiterated the White House’s belief that the bureau should be willing to come forward and publicly dispute reporting that mischaracterized investigative findings.
According to a senior administration official, McCabe told Priebus that while the FBI couldn’t publicly comment on the Times report, the White House could cite “senior intelligence officials” saying the report was inaccurate.
“I think the White House really thinks that Comey is on their side,” the Justice Department official said. “That’s why they ask him these things, and it compromises him.”
Observers say that is especially the case given all of the attention that President Trump paid to Comey following his election win.
During a reception for law enforcement and security officials at the White House on Trump’s second full day as president, Trump saw Comey in the audience and called him over, shaking his hand and then pulling the 6-foot-8 FBI director into a hug. “He’s become more famous than me,” Trump said with a chuckle.
The silence from the FBI only adds to “impression that something strange is going on between the FBI and the White House,” said a former Obama administration official familiar with the policy governing contacts between staff.
The White House declined to specify Friday whether it’s still following the guidelines set under Obama. The Justice Department did not respond Friday to questions about whether it’s maintained rules put forward in 2009 by then-Attorney General Eric Holder, which included a special carve-out for national security matters.
“It explains why the FBI might have been comfortable describing the scope without getting into the substance,” the former Obama official said. “There’s a difference between when the FBI can talk to the White House, which is not really that improper here, and when the FBI can give public comment, which is actually more inappropriate and what Priebus was urging them to do.”
Top congressional Democrats are crying foul, raising the possibility that Comes may eventually find himself called to the Hill to testify about his contacts with the White House. Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, blasted the White House’s behavior, saying intelligence professionals “are not there to serve as the President’s PR firm.”
“For its part, the intelligence community must resist improper efforts like these by the Administration to politicize its role, and in Congress we will have to redouble our vigilance to ensure that the community is never compelled to do otherwise,” Schiff said in a statement.
“This is a no-win situation for the FBI. It puts the FBI in peril,” said Ellen Glasser, a retired special agent and past president of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI. “The White House should not be telling the FBI how to do its business.”