President Donald Trump made the unfounded accusation that former FBI Director James Comey illegally “leaked CLASSIFIED INFORMATION to the media.” His claim appears to have been based on a news story that makes no such determination.
The Hill reported on July 9 that four of seven memos Comey wrote about his conversations with the president contained classified information. One of the seven memos was shared with a friend, who leaked the information to the media at Comey’s direction, the former FBI director has said. But despite Trump’s tweet, the Hill report — which is based on anonymous officials “familiar with the documents” — does not say whether the memo shared with the friend was among those deemed to be classified. In his testimony before Congress, Comey said that it was not.
James Comey leaked CLASSIFIED INFORMATION to the media. That is so illegal!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 10, 2017
Just minutes before that accusatory tweet, the president had retweeted a “Fox & Friends” message that inaccurately claimed that “material James Comey leaked to a friend contained top secret information.” The Fox report was based on the Hill‘s story.
Report accuses material James Comey leaked to a friend contained top secret information pic.twitter.com/Hkg4cAb6o9
— FOX & friends (@foxandfriends) July 10, 2017
But the Hill report doesn’t say that. Rather, it says that Comey produced seven memos about his nine conversations with Trump regarding the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. “Four of the memos had markings making clear they contained information classified at the secret or confidential level, according to officials directly familiar with the matter,” the Hill reported.
The report does not identify the memo leaked to a friend as among those that contained classified information, nor does it say which of the seven memos contained such information.
Marc Kasowitz, the president’s personal attorney, made a similar accusation to Trump’s on June 8, when he claimed that Comey “admitted that he leaked to friends of his purported memos of those privileged communications. One of which, he testified, was classified.” But as we wrote then, Comey only admitted to sharing one memo with one friend, and that was not a document that Comey said was classified.
In his Senate testimony, Comey said he had given a friend — not friends, plural — his memo — also not memos, plural — on what the president had said to him on Feb. 14 about the FBI investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. According to Comey, Trump told him, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Trump has contradicted that.
Comey acknowledged that he had “asked a friend of mine [later identified as Columbia University professor Daniel C. Richman] to share the content of the memo with a reporter.” Comey testified that after the president had tweeted that Comey had better hope there were no “tapes” of their conversation, Comey gave the memo to the Columbia Law School professor to provide to the media so that it “might prompt the appointment of a special counsel.”
In the Senate hearing, Comey confirmed that at least one of the memos he created of his meetings with Trump was typed on an FBI classified laptop because the Jan. 6 briefing at Trump Tower had been classified.
“It was a classified briefing and so I wrote that on a classified device,” Comey said in response to a question on whether all the memos were unclassified. “The one I started typing … in the car — that was a classified laptop that I started working on.”
But Comey said the memo he shared with a friend was unclassified. In his written testimony, Comey says of the Feb. 14 memo: “I immediately prepared an unclassified memo of the conversation about Flynn and discussed the matter with FBI senior leadership.”
“So you didn’t consider your memo or your sense of that conversation to be a government document?” Sen. Roy Blunt asked in the June 8 Senate hearing. “You considered it to be, somehow, your own personal document that you could share with the media as you wanted to through a friend?”
“Correct,” Comey said. “I understood this to be my recollection recorded of my conversation with the president. As a private citizen, I felt free to share that. I thought it important to get it out.”
The Hill noted that when the memos — which Comey said he had turned over to Special Counsel Robert Mueller — were recently shown to Congress “the FBI claimed all were, in fact, deemed to be government documents.”
The Hill article said congressional investigators may now turn their attention to whether Comey may have mishandled any classified information in his personal memos, and whether the sharing of any of those memos may have violated FBI rules. But “key questions” still remain before investigators can make an assessment, the article stated.
The Hill, July 9: In order to make an assessment, congressional investigators will have to tackle key questions, such as where and how the memos were created, including whether they were written on an insecure computer or notepad; where and how the memos were stored, such as inside Comey’s home, in a briefcase or on an insecure laptop; whether any memos were shown to private individuals without a security clearance and whether those memos contained any classified information; and when was it determined by the government that the memos contained classified information, before Comey took them and shared one or after.
Kasowitz, Trump’s attorney, also claimed in a June 9 statement that Comey had shared contents of another memo, about a Jan. 27 dinner with the president, with the press. But Comey only admitted to asking a friend to share the Feb. 14 memo.
In his tweet, the president leaps to an assumption — that Comey illegally shared classified information with the media — that is simply not established in the Hill report. We reached out to the White House press office, but it declined to provide any further evidence to back up the president’s tweet.
Update, July 11, 2017: “Fox & Friends” co-host Steve Doocy corrected the show’s on-air reporting, and subsequent tweet, saying it was “mistaken.”
“Yesterday on this program, we aired and tweeted a story saying former FBI Director James Comey leaked memos containing top secret information,” Doocy said. “We were mistaken in that. According to a report, half of the memos contained information classified at the secret or confidential level, not top-secret. And the markings of the documents in which Mr. Comey leaked are, at this point, unclear. Just wanted to straighten that out.”
Update, Aug. 29, 2019: The Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General issued a report Aug. 29, 2019, that said Comey wrote seven memos about his private conversations with Trump, including four that contained classified information. Comey gave a copy of one memo to Richman with instructions to share the contents of that memo with a reporter, but it “did not contain any classified information,” the report said.
“We found no evidence that Comey or his attorneys released any of the classified information contained in any of the Memos to members of the media,” the report said.
The IG did, however, find that the former FBI director “violated applicable policies and his FBI Employment Agreement” by keeping “signed originals of Memos 2, 4, 6, and 7” at his home after leaving the FBI, and then sharing “copies of Memos 2, 4, and 6, and a redacted version of Memo 7” with his attorney.
One of those shared copies, memo 2, contained six words that the FBI later determined to be classified at the “confidential” level – the “lowest level” of government secrecy. The redacted version of memo 7 did not contain classified information, and Comey did not take home or share memos 1 and 3, which contained classified information at the “secret” level.
The Department of Justice declined to prosecute Comey for mishandling classified information, the IG report says.