Transcript: Former FBI Director James Comey on "Face the Nation," August 23, 2020

Comey "can't imagine" he's a target of internal DOJ probe
Comey "can't imagine" he's a target of intern... 10:21

The following is a transcript of an interview with former FBI Director James Comey that aired Sunday, August 23, 2020, on "Face the Nation."


MARGARET BRENNAN: And we are back with former FBI Director James Comey. He used to be a registered Republican, but this week he will speak at the Convention on Founding Principles, which is a gathering of Republicans who are not happy with President Trump. Good morning to you. 

FORMER FBI DIRECTOR JAMES COMEY: Good morning, MARGARET. I want to get your reaction and insight into what we learned this week, which was that the Southern District of New York indicted former Trump White House official and campaign strategist Steve Bannon for alleged fraud. He's now the sixth close Trump associate to be criminally charged by the DOJ. You used to run the SDNY. What do you make of this case?

COMEY: Well, it's another reminder of the kind of people this president surrounds himself with. At this point, they could almost start their own crime family. It's a very serious case. The Southern District of New York has laid it out in a very detailed indictment called a speaking indictment. And he's in a world of trouble.

MARGARET BRENNAN: A world of trouble. What do you mean by that?

COMEY: Well, it's a very serious fraud case with a huge amount of money stolen from innocent victims, Americans who thought they were giving money to support the president's wall on the Mexican border and instead it was stolen. That will drive up the potential punishments for Mr. Bannon and his co-conspirators. And, you know, he's in trouble because the indictment lays it out in such detail, including excerpts from texts. If you're Steve Bannon, you're his lawyers, you're reading this saying, I'm going down here. And I don't know what the next steps are for him and his co-defendants, but that's what I meant by world of trouble.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The Senate Intelligence Committee, we know, also sent a letter to the Southern District asking them to investigate Bannon for lying to Congress. Is there more that the public leads- needs to know about Steve Bannon and any links to election interference?

COMEY: I don't know. I don't know what the Southern District of New York is doing. I think this indictment surprised a lot of people because they did it like the pros they are. They didn't talk about it until they were ready to bring the case. But people can learn an awful lot about Russia and the Trump campaign just by reading the thousand pages that the Senate Intelligence Committee put out this week. It tells a story that blows up the president's nonsense about it being a hoax, that blows up Bill Barr's nonsense about there being nothing to investigate. There's a story there that the American people, if they're interested, can read and learn a whole lot about the kind of characters who were working with Russia during the 2016 campaign.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you more about that in a moment. We will have to take a break. But very quickly, what do you see as the biggest threat to the rule of law right now?

COMEY: That even-handed law enforcement has disappeared from the Justice Department under Bill Barr and Donald Trump. It shouldn't matter whether Trump likes you or not. Everybody should get a fair shake. And that the truth is under attack-- 

MARGARET BRENNAN: OK.

COMEY: --both by the attorney general and the president. Those things matter. That's why I'm speaking for the first time--

MARGARET BRENNAN: OK.

COMEY: --ever at a political event this week.

MARGARET BRENNAN: All right. We're going to take a break and come back and continue our conversation with former Director Comey in just a few minutes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MARGARET BRENNAN: Welcome back to FACE THE NATION. We're continuing our conversation with former FBI Director James Comey. I want to pick up where we left off, which was that Senate Intelligence report. This is a bipartisan report, meaning Republicans signed off on it. This was three years long. And the conclusion here was that Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort represented a, quote, "grave counterintelligence threat" to the U.S. because of his close work with Russian intelligence officer Konstantin Kilimnik. This goes farther than what Mueller concluded and made public. Why? Why is the public just now hearing about it?

COMEY: Because the Senate Intelligence Committee was looking at all information they could gather. Mueller was approaching it as a prosecutor, trying to see what evidence he could bring into court to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt. And so the Senate Intelligence Committee could look much more broadly and, as you said, came to this conclusion that the head of Trump's campaign was funneling information to a Russian intelligence officer, someone he likely knew was a Russian intelligence officer. Let that sink in and then ask yourself, so there was nothing to investigate here, as Bill Barr says, it was a hoax? The Republicans have exploded that nonsense.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The report, though, also was critical of your old agency, the FBI. It said your bureau should have done more to alert DNC officials that Russian hackers had accessed their servers. Why didn't the FBI do this? This was a national security threat happening under the nose of the FBI.

COMEY: Yeah, that's- I understand that. That's fair criticism. I think at the time, our folks thought that just telling an institution that the Russians are inside your house was enough. But I think part of what may have led to a lack of urgency at the DNC and at the FBI is that nobody anticipated this wasn't normal intelligence gathering by the Russians, this was an effort to weaponize. And if anybody had seen that, I think they would have yelled a little bit more loudly.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Was that a mistake on your part? I mean, how did the FBI miss that this was an active measures campaign by a foreign intelligence service?

COMEY: That's a great question. I think the simple answer is because it had never happened before, but if I were still director of the FBI, that wouldn't be a good enough answer. I hope they're taking a look back across the intelligence community and asking, so why didn't we imagine that the Russians might do this? But the truth is that we didn't. Nobody in the intelligence community did.

MARGARET BRENNAN: When you were FBI director, you never imagined this scenario. I mean, don't you think this was a mistake on your part?

COMEY: I sure think it was a miss- a mistake, I'm not going to quibble on words. Yeah, it was a miss. I don't know why it didn't occur to us that the Russians were doing something that they had never done before, which is to weaponize and actually fire stolen material at our democratic process. And, look, looking back in hindsight, it seems obvious. I don't know the answer as to why nobody in the intelligence community, none of the analysts, saw this coming. And it ought to be something that we're asking ourselves.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Are we still this vulnerable? 

COMEY: Yes, in a different way. I'm sure the Russians will use different tactics because we've figured out what they were last time. They achieved their objectives in the last election. They've done incredibly well under President Trump. They want him to stay in office. They'll be coming again. And the problem for us as Americans is you can't effectively stop a threat that the president won't even acknowledge exists. And so, sure, they're going to be in our house again, messing with us. The only way we're going to kick Putin out of our elections is to elect Joe Biden president so someone finally puts real pain on the Russians.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What does real pain look like? I mean, we've been warned by the U.S. intelligence community that interference is happening again. President Trump is talking about election interference in very different terms. I actually want to play for you something that he said this week. He said that this will be the most fraudulent election in US history. And he told this to Fox News.

(ROLL CLIP)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're going to have everything. We're going to have sheriffs and we're going to have law enforcement and we're going to have hopefully U.S. attorneys and we're going to have everybody. And attorney generals.

(END CLIP)

MARGARET BRENNAN: He's talking about fraud at the ballot box. He's talking about fraud in the mail. He's talking about fraud by receiving a ballot in the first place. What the president just described in that soundbite is frankly illegal in many states. It's up to local authorities when it comes to sending out local law enforcement, but he's making clear what he wants to see happen. What do you make of what he's laying out?

COMEY: Well, I'm sure the next question Fox News asked was, what are the facts that support your allegations of fraud? And there were crickets. I trust state, local and federal law enforcement to honor their oath to the rule of law and to not be part of suppressing votes. There's a legitimate role for law enforcement to play in connection with elections. And I'm confident that the men and women in law enforcement at all levels will abide by their oath.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  In other words, not do this. In terms of--

COMEY: Yeah, this is- this is America. We don't- we don't, at least we don't anymore, we did it a whole lot to African-Americans when I was a child, we don't anymore use cops to scare people away from polling places. We just don't do it. And I'm confident that police officers around this country are not interested in being part of an illegitimate effort like that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I have to ask you, the Justice Department is investigating the investigation into 2016. Do you know if you are a witness or a target or have you sat for an interview with John Durham as part of the investigation?

COMEY: Yeah, I have no idea. I've had no contact with him and haven't talked to him.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you believe that that means you are a target?

COMEY: I can't imagine that I'm a target. I saw the news report that John Brennan was a witness. Given that I know what happened during 2016, which was a bunch of people trying to do the right thing consistent with the law, I'm not worried at all about that investigation of the investigation. Next, I'm sure will be an investigation of the investigation of the investigation. They just want to have an investigation to talk about.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you about a tweet you sent this week. You sent out a picture of yourself wearing a t-shirt that said more women should be elected, more votes for women. Of course, it is the week honoring ratification of the 19th Amendment. But it drew this response that we just put up for our viewers from Hillary Clinton, who is just sort of making a smirk. I know she's said in the past that she thought she was on the verge of winning in 2016 until you reopened that email investigation. Do you see this as contradictory? Do you regret what happened then? Because she clearly sees this as a contradiction for you to say now.

COMEY: Yeah, look, I think it's pretty funny. And I get why she would send something like that. She's better at Twitter than I am. But I regret only being involved in the 2016 election. We were stuck, and I think we made the right decisions choosing between terrible options. And so I wasn't trying, nor was anybody else in the FBI trying to elect or not elect anyone. And I hope more women get elected to office. I'm proud of that shirt that my daughters and my wife gave me. And I think it's time for more women to be leaders in this country. We'll all be better off.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  Well, we agree with you on that point. Thank you very much, Jim Comey, for your time. We will be right back.