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Under fire, FBI director forges ahead
Love him or hate him, James Comey's not going anywhere.
The frequently embattled director of the FBI joked Wednesday at a conference that "you're stuck with me for another six and a half years," referring to the remainder of his 10-year term.
While the remark was clearly intended in jest, it also provided insight into the mindset of the towering former prosecutor, who is taking fire from all sides over the bureau's reported investigation into contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The director has been staunchly silent in recent weeks, stoking speculation about when he might speak out about any Trump-related investigation – and whether he's building a case.
But when it comes to Russia, Comey is damned if you do, damned if you don't.
Comey, who once famously described himself as "politically tone deaf," has been careful with his statements about the rumored probe, refusing to confirm it even to lawmakers in a classified setting.
Following a closed-door meeting on the matter in January, outraged House Democrats described him as "unflinching" and "defiant."
Now the rumored investigation threatens to create a rift with the White House.
In January, Trump – who was undoubtedly helped during the campaign by Comey's eleventh-hour disclosures about a new probe into Hillary Clinton's private email server – reportedly asked him to stay on as head of the bureau.
But late last month, the president took aim at the FBI after Comey reportedly refused to dispute a New York Times story that said agents had uncovered contact between campaign officials and Moscow.
Comey reportedly called White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and said that while the story was wrong, the FBI would not put out a statement.
Trump blasted the FBI on Twitter for being "totally unable to stop the national security 'leakers' that have permeated our government for a long time."
The tension appeared to escalate over the weekend, when Trump accused former President Obama of "wiretapping" Trump Tower. Comey reportedly petitioned the Justice Department to issue a denial.
The director was said to be "incredulous" after Trump's tweets, concerned that the allegations would reflect poorly on the integrity of his agency, which he has consistently and fiercely defended.
"Does he know of possibility there might be a confrontation and be fired by the president? Sure," a person familiar with the matter told CNN Monday. "Does he worry about it? No."
Comey, appointed by Obama to head the bureau in 2013, has long been seen as a maverick willing to buck executive authority. While serving as deputy attorney general in 2004, he famously raced to the hospital bedside of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to block the recertification of a controversial counterterrorism program.
Now, he has few friends on either side of the aisle. Although Republicans on Capitol Hill have declined to criticize him, Democrats are no happier with Comey than the president.
Bitter over his refusal to confirm the existence of the Russia probe, many Democrats have called for Comey to step down.
It is the bureau's policy never to discuss an ongoing investigation – but Democrats say the FBI flagrantly ignored that policy last year with Comey's disclosures regarding the Clinton investigation.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department's inspector general has launched an investigation into whether Comey broke bureau policy with his various disclosures.
Many Democrats have said they are skeptical about Comey's ability to conduct any investigation into Trump's ties to Russia in an impartial way.
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), has accused Comey of withholding information from the committee, which is probing Russian involvement in the election.
"I would say at this point we know less than a fraction of what the FBI knows," Schiff told reporters after a briefing with Comey last week.
"I appreciate we had a long briefing and testimony from the director today, but in order for us to do our investigation in a thorough and credible way, we're gonna need the FBI to fully cooperate, to be willing to tell us the length and breadth of any counterintelligence investigations they are conducting," Schiff said.
"At this point, the director was not willing to do that."
Comey has been invited to testify before the committee in its first public hearing on its Russia investigation, scheduled for March 20. He has rebuffed invitations to brief the committee behind closed doors in the past, and it is unclear whether he will accept.
Comey this week canceled a hotly anticipated appearance at the Austin, Texas, tech conference South by Southwest, in what would have been his first major public appearance since the election.
Any appearance before the open committee is almost certain to involve fierce questioning from Democrats about the existence of the bureau's investigation – questions that it seems unlikely Comey will answer.
Schiff indicated that he intends to press Comey on whether the bureau did, in fact, tap Trump Tower.
"If the public reports are accurate and Mr. Comey wanted the Justice Department to speak out on this, he will have his own opportunity on March 20," Schiff said.
[Source: By Katie Bo Williams, The Hill, Washington, 08Mar17]
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