James Comey: Former FBI chief testifies on Russia investigation

Former FBI Director James Comey, appearing before the US Congress on Wednesday in a politically charged hearing, defended the 2016 FBI’s “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation into links between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“This was an investigation that was appropriately predicated, and that had to be opened, and it was – in the main – conducted in the right way,” Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee in a hearing on Wednesday.

Comey said he has “no idea what on Earth” US Attorney General William Barr means when he says the Trump-Russia investigation was unfounded.

“The notion that the attorney general believes that was an illegitimate endeavour to investigate, mystifies me,” Comey told the committee.

Comey’s appearance by video feed comes just weeks before the US presidential election as President Donald Trump and his allies continue to attack the Russia affair as a “hoax”.

The president fired Comey in May 2017, prompting the Department of Justice (DOJ) to open an independent investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties under Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose report detailed dozens of links between campaign officials and Russian operatives.

“You saw what happened with Hillary Clinton where it was a whole big con job,” President Trump said in Tuesday night’s presidential debate with Democrat Joe Biden, citing new, but questionable Russian information released by his administration’s top spy official on Tuesday.

Director of National intelligence John Ratcliffe, a former Texas congressman and Trump loyalist, released a letter to the Senate committee revealing purported CIA intelligence about Hillary Clinton’s efforts in 2016 to tie Trump to Russia.

According to the letter, US officials had information from Russian intelligence in 2016 that Clinton, then the Democratic presidential candidate, had approved “a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisors to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services”.

Democrats said the letter conveyed Russian disinformation. Ratcliffe acknowledged that American intelligence agencies do “not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication”.

Comey dismissed it in his testimony. “I don’t understand Mr Ratcliffe’s letter well enough to comment on it. It’s confusing … I really don’t know what he’s doing.”

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham, a Republican and loyal Trump ally facing a tough re-election battle in South Carolina, has pursued a dogged inquiry into how the Trump-Russia investigation got started.

Republican legislators have seized on errors identified in an internal DOJ investigation to cast broader doubt on the Russia probe and Barr has assigned a federal prosecutor, US Attorney John Durham, to conduct a special criminal investigation.

Democrats lamented the backward-looking nature of Wednesday’s hearing and argued the Russia investigation was valid and that the committee’s time could be better spent on other matters.

“Most people think we should be talking about other things, except maybe President Trump,” said Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar while Senator Patrick Leahy described the hearing as a “political errand” for the president, The Associated Press news agency reported.

Comey is the latest high-profile, former DOJ or FBI official to testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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