The existence of memos that former FBI Director James Comey reportedly prepared detailing his conversations with President Donald Trump about the bureau’s Russia investigation is far from shocking to FBI veterans, who say documenting such contacts in highly sensitive investigations is par for the course.
“A conversation with a subject of an investigation is evidentiary, no matter what is discussed,” said former FBI official Tom Fuentes, who stressed that he doesn’t know what the president’s status is with respect to the ongoing probe of Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election. “Any conversation with Trump is going to be noteworthy….If you drop dead of a heart attack, your successor is going to want to know what was going on, so you would record that whether it’s to aid your future memory or for a successor two or three years down the line.”
Comey documented Trump’s request to curtail the FBI investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election the day after former national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned, according to a New York Times report subsequently confirmed by a source to POLITICO. The White House has denied the president made any such request.
One similar memo located by POLITICO details the FBI’s notification to CIA Director David Petraeus in 2012 that an ongoing FBI probe had turned up his affair with an associate and raised questions about whether he’d improperly shared classified information.
In the “Memo to File,” written two days after the 2012 presidential election and one day before Petraeus resigned, Deputy FBI Director Sean Joyce seems intent on capturing precisely what he told the CIA chief and retired Army general and what was said in response.
“I advised Director Petraeus that I had informed the Director of National Intelligence regarding the security issues of an ongoing investigative matter,” Joyce wrote. “Specifically, I advised Director Petraeus that the FBI and DOJ had an obligation to report this matter due to his involvement in an ongoing criminal investigation and that classified documents were discovered on a hard drive owned by the woman with whom he was engaged in an extramarital affair.”
Joyce sought to record what Petraeus said in response.
“Director Petraeus asked, ‘do you know where this is going, where does it go from here?” the FBI official wrote, adding, “I told Petraeus that the DNI would make that determination.”
Joyce’s memo is unsigned and does not bear his name, but an adjoining document in the file lists him as the author of the memo. The records were released last August in response to Freedom of Information Act requests and at least one lawsuit. The files are replete with markings describing the case as a “sensitive investigative matter”—a designation almost certain to apply to the Russia probe.
Some might see the memos as bureaucratic butt-covering, but Fuentes cautioned against such an interpretation.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean Comey was thinking, ‘I need to make a record of whatever Trump said because he’s going to play me,’” the former FBI official said. “He would have kept this kind of a record of any meeting he held in the field.”
Such contemporaneous accounts have sometimes proven helpful to Comey in the past.
Comey’s account of a now-famous 2004 bedside showdown over war-on-terror surveillance efforts was bolstered by logs then-FBI Director Robert Mueller kept of his daily activities. Those notes backed up Comey’s headline-grabbing claims that he sought to head off an effort by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to seek an ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft’s approval for surveillance Comey, Ashcroft’s deputy at the time, refused to sign off on.
In 2005, Comey used emails to his chief of staff and others to record objections to the Bush administration’s use of harsh interrogation techniques such as torture. In the messages, Comey acknowledged that he approved most of of the Office of Legal Counsel opinions authorizing the techniques, but said he’d urged Gonzales to convince the White House to abandon the harshest methods.
“In stark terms I explained to him what this would look like some day and what it would mean for the president and the government,” Mr. Comey wrote in a May 31, 2005, e-mail message to his chief of staff, Chuck Rosenberg. Comey said future reviews were likely to conclude “that some of this stuff was simply awful.”
Regarding one legal opinion, Comey wrote: “I told him [Gonzales’s Chief of Staff Ted Ullyot] that this opinion would come back to haunt the AG and DOJ and urged him not to allow it…..I just hope that when all of this comes out, this institution doesn’t take the hit, but rather the hit is taken by those individuals who occupied positions at OLC and OAG and were too weak to stand up, for the principles that undergird the rest of this great institution.”
The report made clear Comey has a tendency to make sure events he deems consequential are written down.
“Comey told us that he wrote the emails to Rosenberg to memorialize what he considered to be a very important and serious situation,” the OPR report said.
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.