WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI's counterintelligence investigation into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia initially focused on four Americans and whether they were connected to Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, former FBI Director James Comey told lawmakers during hours of closed-door questioning.
Comey did not identify the Americans but said President Donald Trump, then the Republican candidate, was not among them.
He also told the House Judiciary Committee that, contrary to Trump's claims, he was "not friends in any social sense" with special counsel Robert Mueller, who is now leading the Russia investigation. Trump has repeatedly portrayed the men as exceptionally close as part of a long-running effort to undermine the investigation and paint the lead figures in the probe as united against him.
"I admire the heck out of the man, but I don't know his phone number, I've never been to his house, I don't know his children's names," said Comey, who added that he had "never hugged or kissed the man" despite the president's insistence otherwise.
"A relief to my wife," he deadpanned.
The committee released a transcript of the interview on Saturday, just 24 hours after privately grilling the fired FBI chief about investigative decisions related to Hillary Clinton's email server and Trump's campaign and potential ties to Russia. Comey largely dodged questions connected to the current Mueller-led probe, including whether his May 2017 firing by Trump constituted obstruction of justice.
The Republican-led committee interviewed Comey as part of its investigation into FBI actions in 2016, a year when the bureau — in the heat of the presidential campaign — recommended against charges for Clinton and opened an investigation into Russian interference in the election.
The questioning largely centered on well-covered territory from a Justice Department inspector general report, Comey's own book and interviews and hours of public testimony on Capitol Hill. But the former FBI chief also used the occasion to take aim at Trump's frequent barbs at the criminal justice system, saying "we have become numb to lying and attacks on the rule of law by the president," as well as Trump's contention that it should be a crime for subjects to "flip" and cooperate with investigators.
"It's a shocking suggestion coming from any senior official, no less the president. It's a critical and legitimate part of the entire justice system in the United States," Comey said.
In offering some details of the investigation's origins, Comey said it started in July 2016 with a look at "four Americans who had some connection to Mr. Trump" during that summer and whether they were tied to "the Russian interference effort." The campaign itself, he said, was not investigation at that time.
He did not identify the Americans, though Mueller's investigation has made clear that by that time, there had already been outreach from Russian intermediaries to Trump associates — including a 2015 encounter revealed for the first time in a court filing Friday. Also by that time Democratic email accounts had been hacked by Russian intelligence and a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, had been told that Russians had "dirt" on Clinton in the form of stolen emails.
That October, the FBI obtained a secret search warrant to monitor the communications of a Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, on suspicions he was acting as a foreign agent — something he has denied.
Multiple Trump associates, including Papadopoulos, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump's former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, have pleaded guilty to lying about their interactions with Russians during the campaign and presidential transition period. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's foreign dealings, including to an associate the U.S. says has ties to Russian intelligence, has also attracted law enforcement scrutiny.
Comey reiterated to lawmakers that it was the 2016 Papadopoulos encounter with a Russian intermediary in London that ignited the Russia investigation, rather than — as some Republicans have maintained — Democratic-funded opposition research compiled by a former British spy.
"It was weeks or months later that the so-called Steele dossier came to our attention," Comey said.
He said that by the time of his firing, the FBI had not come to a conclusion about whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia's efforts to sway the election.
And he insisted that the FBI would recover from the president's attacks on the bureau.
"The FBI will be fine. It will snap back, as will the rest of our institutions," Comey said. "There will be short-term damage, which worries me a great deal, but in the long run, no politician, no president can, in a lasting way, damage those institutions."
Besides the questioning on Russia, Republicans lawmakers pressed Comey on the FBI's handling of an investigation into whether Clinton mishandled classified information on her private email server. Comey's July 2016 announcement that Clinton and her aides had been "extremely careless" but did not deserve criminal charges infuriated Republicans who contended that someone less powerful and well-connected would have faced prosecution.
Under questioning from Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, Comey reiterated that the FBI and Justice Department didn't have a prosecutable case against Clinton because they couldn't prove she willfully violated the law by setting up the server.