There has never been such a surreal interview in the political world as the one that took place on Sunday between Fox News host Chris Wallace and former FBI Director James B. Comey.
The interview followed the release of a 434-page report from the Justice Department’s internal watchdog, who found FBI requests to spy on a Trump campaign adviser under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act were rife with errors and omissions — and maybe some flat-out deceptions.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz said in the report that a bogus dossier put together by counterintelligence specialist Christopher Steele, a former head of the Russia desk for British intelligence (MI6), played “a central and essential role in the decision by FBI [Office of the General Counsel] to support the request for FISA surveillance targeting Carter Page, as well as the FBI’s ultimate decision to seek the FISA order.”
Under FISA, federal officials can petition a secret court to conduct physical and electronic surveillance and order the collection of “foreign intelligence information” between “foreign powers” and “agents of foreign powers” suspected of espionage or terrorism.
The Steele dossier, as it came to be known, included accusations that members of the Trump campaign helped Russian operatives interfere in the 2016 election to help President Trump. The dossier — partially funded by the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign — also alleged that Russia sought to damage Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy and that Mr. Trump engaged in unprintable acts with prostitutes in Moscow in 2013.
The contents of the Steele dossier, for the record, have been completely discredited.
Mr. Horowitz’s report laid out 17 separate inaccuracies across three surveillance applications, including the one dealing with Page, who served as foreign-policy adviser to Mr. Trump during his 2016 presidential election campaign.
During Sunday’s interview. Mr. Comey asserted, “I have total confidence that the FISA process was followed and that the entire case was handled in a thoughtful, responsible way by DOJ and the FBI.”
Then this exchange happened (and it’s exactly what both Mr. Comey and Mr. Wallace said, word for word).
Mr. Wallace: “Horowitz says it wasn’t part — as you told Bret Baier — it wasn’t part of a broader mosaic. He said it played an essential role in establishing probable cause. In fact, he says, if it hadn’t been for the Steele dossier, the FBI probably would haven’t even submitted a FISA application — that it had been reviewed in April of 2016 — or August, rather, of 2016 — they decided not to do it. They get the Steele dossier. They do it. It wasn’t part of a broader mosaic. That’s what you said, sir.”
Mr. Comey: “I’m not sure he and I are saying different things.”
What the ?! Not saying different things?! Mr. Horowitz said the dossier played a “central and essential role,” while Mr. Comey said it was just a tile in a mosaic.
But back to Mr. Comey.
“What his report says is that the FBI thought it was a close call until they got the Steele report, put that additional information in, and that tipped it over to be probable cause. It’s a long FISA application. It includes Steele material and lots of other material. I don’t think we’re saying different things,” said the former FBI director turned Trump-hater.
Mr. Wallace: “Well, I think you are, sir, because he’s saying — you’re saying it’s part of a broader mosaic; it’s just one element. He’s saying it was the tipping point. It’s what brought it over. That doesn’t make it part of a broader mosaic; it makes it the centerpiece of the whole FISA application and the ability to surveil Carter Page.”
Mr. Comey: “Yeah. I don’t understand it to be saying that. I could be wrong about that.”
Mr. Wallace, who looked a bit stunned, soldiered on, quoting Mr. Horowitz: “He says, ‘We concluded the Steele reporting played a central and essential role in the decision to seek a FISA warrant, that it pushed the FISA proposal over the line in terms of establishing probable cause.’ I mean, he says “
Mr. Comey: “Yeah.”
Mr. Wallace: ” what he says. Words mean something.”
Mr. Comey: “Yeah. And I agree with his characterization. I’m just confused — I, no — I don’t see the disconnect between the two of us. And I’m sorry that I’m missing it.”
Mr. Wallace: “Well, you don’t see a difference between ‘It’s part of a broader mosaic’ and ‘It was the — it played an essential role in establishing probable cause’?”
Mr. Comey: “It was one of a bunch of different facts that were assembled to apply to the court. It was the one that convinced the lawyers that they had enough now, with that added to the pile, to go forward.”
Mr. Wallace: “I guess the question is, it seemed that you were minimizing the role of the Steele dossier, and he’s saying it’s a lot more important than you let on.”
Mr. Comey: “OK. If I was, then I’m sorry that I did that.”
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Mr. Comey now has acknowledged that he downplayed the role the Steele dossier played in winning secret warrants to conduct covert surveillance of a presidential campaign.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @josephcurl.
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