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Former FBI Director Comey Weighs In On DOJ's Inspector General Report

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From the beginning of the Russia investigation, President Trump has accused the FBI of conducting a partisan witch hunt. The Justice Department's inspector general said today it's looked and found no evidence of political bias. That's a key takeaway in a new report more than 400 pages thick. It rebuts a number of conspiracy theories that President Trump and his allies have floated. But the report does find errors and misjudgments in the petitions to eavesdrop on one Trump campaign aide, Carter Page. Here's how President Trump reacted to the report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's a disgrace what's happened with respect to the things that were done to our country. It should never again happen to another president. It is incredible - far worse than I would've ever thought possible.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the Russia inquiry began in the summer of 2016, James Comey was the FBI director. President Trump fired him less than a year later.

And James Comey joins us now. Welcome back to the program.

JAMES COMEY: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: First, give us your top line reaction to this report.

COMEY: It's been two years of waiting for the FBI, but the American people now finally have the truth that the organization didn't engage in treason or spying on a campaign or any of the horrible things that the FBI was accused of over the last two years. And so - sorry, go ahead.

SHAPIRO: You say you've been biting your tongue for two years. What's the thing that you wanted to say that you weren't able to say that now you can?

COMEY: That it's all made-up; it's all lies; it's all nonsense. The FBI is a human organization, so it's flawed, but it is fundamentally honest and committing to getting it right.

SHAPIRO: You say it's a human organization, so it's flawed. But this report documents a number of errors, omissions and distortions in the application to surveil Trump campaign aide Carter Page. An investigation of a presidential campaign is so sensitive. How did this application contain so many mistakes?

COMEY: Well, I'm not sure. I've read the report. I think the inspector general found something like 17 separate mistakes. And that is really unfortunate and really important that he found them so they can be fixed. And that's a worthwhile part of any inspector general report. And so I don't want to step away from that, but I want to underscore nothing was done with political bias or with improper motivation.

SHAPIRO: Given that you were at the top of the chain of command during some critical moments, do you take responsibility for any of these mistakes?

COMEY: Yes. Of course. As the leader, you have to take responsibility when there are mistakes in your organization. No matter how far down they are, it's your responsibility. And if I were still director, I'd be doing what Chris Wray is doing, which is figuring out how we make sure they don't happen again.

SHAPIRO: If it doesn't reflect political bias, what do you think it does reflect?

COMEY: Good people doing really hard work in unprecedented situations and doing it as they always do, working incredibly hard and making mistakes. It reflects the FBI's commitment to its mission. It was handled a - handed a situation it didn't want, didn't volunteer for, but it needed to investigate to see whether any Americans were part of the Russian effort to interfere in our election.

SHAPIRO: This was an elite, hand-picked team that has received more scrutiny than almost any investigation in my memory. So many errors entered into their surveillance petitions around Carter Page. If the FBI had this many mistakes, even on a high-profile, politically sensitive case, do you think there's a broader problem with FBI agents taking a cavalier attitude to eavesdropping on Americans?

COMEY: I don't. I think there is a problem with human beings working hard and making assumptions and not realizing that other people are making different assumptions. They make mistakes, but they are good people, well-overseen and checked. One of the checks is an inspector general look back at any significant investigation. You'll always find mistakes, and that's important.

SHAPIRO: This is not the only check. The attorney general has asked a U.S. attorney to conduct an overlapping investigation. And that U.S. attorney, Durham, has said that he differs from the conclusions of the inspector general on key conclusions about how this investigation was initiated. What do you make of that?

COMEY: Mystifies me. I don't know what the basis is on which he has decided to speak about a piece of work he hasn't completed. The Justice Department policy allows you to speak about a pending investigation if there's a compelling public interest. I can't imagine what that is on the same day that an inspector general's finishing two years of work and sharing all of those facts in 400 pages with the American people. Why a prosecutor would then issue this statement confuses me and mystifies me. But I hope at the end of the day, whatever he's doing, give the American people transparency when you're done. Show us what you found.

SHAPIRO: Are you concerned that his findings are going to find fault with what you did?

COMEY: I am not. Not at all. I'm as concerned about this as I was about what's gone on the last two years. We'll have to wait because when you're outside an investigation, you can't say, don't do it, 'cause you don't know what they're looking at. But I look forward to the transparency not just for me, but for the FBI.

SHAPIRO: Let me ask you about the attorney general's reaction to this. Bill Barr put out a statement today characterizing the report - quote, "the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions," going on to say the evidence produced by the investigation was consistently exculpatory. What's your response to that? Do you think it's a fair description of the report's findings?

COMEY: It's not a fair description, just as his description of Bob Mueller's work was not a fair description once we all got the report. If folks doubt that it's not fair, read the report. The investigation was properly opened, conducted without bias or political motive and important to do. The attorney general for some reason is continuing this new role of acting as a spokesperson for the Trump administration rather than the leader of an organization devoted to fact and truth.

SHAPIRO: What consequences does that have for the Department of Justice?

COMEY: Well, it confuses the American people about the Department of Justice and sends a message that it is just another part of the Trump political operation, which is why it's long been important for the leaders of the Justice Department to maintain a separation in spirit from the political, to realize that the statue of justice wears a blindfold for an important reason. You can't be seen as carrying water for a political boss when you're finding facts, and that's sure the smell that the attorney general gives off.

SHAPIRO: You cooperated with the investigation. You did interviews with people from the inspector general's office. Is there anything in this report that you disagree with?

COMEY: No, I don't think so. I think it's fair. It's tough, as it should be; finds the mistakes, again, which are important to find and to stare at and to try and avoid in the future; but most importantly, tells the American people, what you've been told over and over and over again over the last two years - that was all made-up. There was no treason. There was no conspiracy. There were good people trying to protect this country.

SHAPIRO: That's James Comey, who was director of the FBI when his bureau opened the Russia inquiry that was the subject of today's Justice Department inspector general report.

Thank you very much for speaking with us today.

COMEY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.