The latest in a story that’s been built brick by brick for a month. The NYT laid the foundation in late April with a long piece on why Comey took such a visible role in the Emailgate investigation last year, culminating in the presser he gave last July when he accused Hillary of having been “extremely careless” in handling classified info. One key influence in his thinking, per the Times, was a hacked document the FBI had obtained early in 2016 which contained a political bombshell — if it was true:
The document, which has been described as both a memo and an email, was written by a Democratic operative who expressed confidence that Ms. Lynch would keep the Clinton investigation from going too far, according to several former officials familiar with the document.
Read one way, it was standard Washington political chatter. Read another way, it suggested that a political operative might have insight into Ms. Lynch’s thinking…
If Ms. Lynch announced that the case was closed, and Russia leaked the document, Mr. Comey believed it would raise doubts about the independence of the investigation.
Was the document real or a Russian fake? And when exactly did the FBI obtain it? The next brick was laid a few days ago by WaPo, which reported that the Bureau had concluded that it was in fact Russian disinformation, not a real email. Supposedly the comment about Lynch suppressing the Emailgate probe was made by Debbie Wasserman Schultz in a message to someone who worked for one of George Soros’s organizations. Wasserman Schultz and the recipient insist that they don’t know each other and have never communicated, and by August, the FBI had concluded that the document was “unreliable.” Alas, that was too late for Comey, who’d given his infamous press conference a month earlier.
But now here comes CNN to lay the latest brick. WaPo is wrong, they claim: “Comey and FBI officials actually knew early on that this intelligence was indeed false,” before he gave his press conference. Allegedly, he kept that fact from Congress too:
In classified sessions with members of Congress several months ago, Comey described those emails in the Russian claim and expressed his concern that this Russian information could “drop” and that would undermine the Clinton investigation and the Justice Department in general, according to one government official.
Still, Comey did not let on to lawmakers that there were doubts about the veracity of the intelligence, according to sources familiar with the briefings. It is unclear why Comey was not more forthcoming in a classified setting.
Sources close to Comey tell CNN he felt that it didn’t matter if the information was accurate, because his big fear was that if the Russians released the information publicly, there would be no way for law enforcement and intelligence officials to discredit it without burning intelligence sources and methods.
The fact that these stories are dropping on Comey this week may be a sign that pro-Trump intel people are starting to fight back against anti-Trump leaks with anti-Comey counter-leaks. Axios reported yesterday that the White House is preparing for a “street fight” with the “deep state,” with plans to “beef up legal, surrogate, communications and rapid-response teams.” Steve Bannon, Trump’s resident political street fighter, is expected to play a major role. One way of fighting back would be to deploy leaks that damage Comey’s credibility. The headline on CNN’s piece is a wrecking ball: “Sources: Comey acted on Russian intelligence he knew was fake.” Comey sounds like either a dupe or a witting pawn of Russian intelligence, until you read the piece to see what the actual issue was.
What should Comey have done with the fake document, though? If he called a presser to announce it was a fake and that the Russians were trying to convince people Loretta Lynch was in the tank for Hillary, every Republican in the country would have scoffed. The document is real, we would have said, and Comey’s trying to cover for Lynch by falsely discrediting it! Debbie Wasserman Schultz unwittingly revealed the secret DOJ/FBI plot to protect Clinton and now the conspirators are trying to spin it as Russian fake news. On the other hand, the course of action Comey eventually settled on — keep the memo a secret and hold a press conference about Emailgate — didn’t really solve his problem with the document for the simple reason that he let Clinton off the hook. If he had recommended charging her, then he and Lynch could have disclosed the memo and used the fact that Hillary was being indicted as proof that it was a fake. Loretta Lynch wasn’t going easy on her; they were going to put her on trial for her classified info practices. But Comey didn’t recommend charging her. On the contrary, he did the most dubious thing he could do under the circumstances — he made the case that she was, in fact, guilty of gross negligence under the relevant statute but declined to recommend charging her anyway because the DOJ traditionally hadn’t prosecuted people for negligence. Imagine if the memo had leaked under those circumstances. There was probable cause to charge her but the FBI mysteriously declined to do so — and then, boom, suddenly there’s a memo alleging Loretta Lynch had planned all along to short-circuit the case against Hillary? That would have looked even shadier than disclosing the memo upfront would have.
I think Comey ended up concluding that there were no good options on how to handle the memo — a Comey specialty in all matters Hillary-related — but decided that as long as he was the decider on whether to charge Clinton or not, the DOJ would have an answer to charges of corruption if/when the fake Russian memo leaked. “Lynch tanked the FBI investigation!” Trump fans would have said, citing the memo. “Nonsense,” Comey would have replied. “She had nothing to do with it. It was my decision alone.” That’s why he gave the presser. The more that he became the public face of the decision on whether or not to charge, the less damage the memo would have done. Although it still would have done plenty. Which raises a question: Why didn’t the memo leak? The Russians could have caused major havoc during the final week of the election, the day after Comey sent his second letter announcing that no incriminating emails had been found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop, by leaking a fake “Lynch obstructed the Emailgate probe” email purportedly from Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
In lieu of an exit question, read this timely piece at Wired describing how Russian hackers are slipping fake documents into their releases of actual hacked correspondence to increase the political damage to their enemies in the west.