Senator John McCain became an unexpected focus of befuddlement and concern on Thursday after a line of questioning that appeared to conflate two separate F.B.I. investigations during James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Mr. McCain, 80, Republican of Arizona, said he believed there was a “double standard” because an investigation into the use of a private email server by Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president, was completed in July, while an investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential campaign continues.
“It’s hard to reconcile: In one case you reach a complete conclusion, and the other side you have not,” he said.
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He added: “She’s one of the candidates, but in her case you say there will be no charges, and in the case of President Trump, the investigation continues.”
John McCain Spent Most Of His Time Asking James Comey About Clinton’s Emails
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Following a yearlong investigation, Mr. Comey, then the director of the F.B.I., announced on July 5 that he recommended no criminal charges for Ms. Clinton for her handling of classified information while she was secretary of state.
That investigation was not connected to the continuing investigation into how Russia sought to influence the presidential election, but Mr. McCain appeared to connect the two. Referring to the July 5 announcement, Mr. McCain said: “I don’t quite understand how you could be done with that, but not done with the whole investigation of their attempt to affect the outcome of our election.”
The questioning briefly befuddled Mr. Comey. “I’m a little confused, Senator,” he responded to one of Mr. McCain’s questions. He clarified that there were two separate investigations, but the senator continued the muddled questioning.
The instant reaction on Twitter was highly critical of Mr. McCain.
In a rare instance of bipartisanship, many Trump supporters had similar responses. Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman, said on Twitter that Mr. McCain was “making no sense.”
Some of his colleagues, who didn’t want to be identified, were worried about his well-being after his performance. Others on social media, including political critics, shared the sentiment.
Mr. McCain’s office issued a statement explaining why he wandered during questioning, nodding to the immediate response on social media.
“I get the sense from Twitter that my line of questioning today went over people’s heads,” the senator said. “Maybe going forward I shouldn’t stay up late watching the Diamondbacks night games,” he said, referring to the Arizona baseball team.
“What I was trying to get at was whether Mr. Comey believes that any of his interactions with the President rise to the level of obstruction of justice. In the case of Secretary Clinton’s emails, Mr. Comey was willing to step beyond his role as an investigator and state his belief about what ‘no reasonable prosecutor’ would conclude about the evidence. I wanted Mr. Comey to apply the same approach to the key question surrounding his interactions with President Trump — whether or not the President’s conduct constitutes obstruction of justice. While I missed an opportunity in today’s hearing, I still believe this question is important, and I intend to submit it in writing to Mr. Comey for the record.”
Here is a complete transcript of the questioning, as compiled by the Federal News Service:
BURR: Senator McCain?
MCCAIN: In the case of — Hillary Clinton, you made the statement that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to bring a suit against her, although it had been very careless — in their behavior. But you did reach a conclusion in that case that it was not necessary to further pursue her.
Yet, at the same time, in the case of Mr. Comey, you said that there was not enough information to make a conclusion. Tell me the different between your conclusion as far as former Secretary Clinton is concerned and — and Mr. — Mr. Trump.
COMEY: The Clinton investigation was a completed investigation that the FBI been deeply involved in. And so I had an opportunity to understand all the facts and apply those facts against the law as I understood them. This investigation was underway, still going when I was fired. So it’s nowhere near in the same place. At least, it wasn’t when I was…
MCCAIN: But it’s still ongoing?
COMEY: … correct, so far as I know. It was when I left.
MCCAIN: That investigation was going on. This investigation is going on. You reached separate conclusions.
COMEY: No, that one was done. The…
MCCAIN: That investigation of (ph) any involvement of Secretary Clinton or any of her associates is completed?
COMEY: Yes, as of July the 5th, the FBI completed its investigative work, and that’s what I was announcing — what we had done and what we had found.
MCCAIN: Well, at least in the minds of this member, there’s a whole lot of questions remaining about what went on, particularly considering the fact that, as you mention, it’s a, quote, “big deal” as to what went on during the campaign.
So I’m glad you concluded that part of the investigation, but I — I think that the American people have a whole lot of questions out there, particularly since you just emphasized the role that Russia played.
And, obviously, she was a candidate for president at the time, so she was clearly involved in this whole situation where fake news — as you just described it, “big deal,” took place. And you’re going to have to help me out here. In other words, we’re complete — the investigation of anything that former Secretary Clinton had to do with the campaign is over and we don’t have to worry about it anymore?
COMEY: With respect to Secretary — I’m not — I’m a little confused, Senator. With respect to Secretary Clinton…
COMEY: … we investigated criminal investigation in connection with her use of a personal e-mail server…
MCCAIN: I understand.
COMEY: … and that’s the investigation I announced the conclusion of on July 5th.
MCCAIN: So — but, at the same time, you made the announcement there would be no charges brought against then Secretary Clinton for any activities involved in the Russia involvement in our — engagement in our election.
I — I don’t quite understand how you could be done with that, but not complete — done with the whole investigation of their attempt to affect the outcome of our election.
COMEY: No. I’m sorry, we’re not — at least, when I left — when I was fired on May the 9th, there was still an open, active investigation to understand the Russian effort, and whether any Americans work with them.
MCCAIN: But you reached the conclusion that there was no reason to bring charges again Secretary Clinton. So you reached a conclusion.
In the case of Mr. Comey, you — President Comey (sic)…
COMEY: No, sir.
MCCAIN: … I mean (ph) — excuse me — case of President Trump, you have an ongoing investigation.
So you got one candidate who you’re done with and another candidate that you have a long way to go. Is that correct?
COMEY: I don’t know how far the — the FBI has to go, but yes, that — the Clinton e-mail investigation was completed. The investigation of Russia’s efforts in connection with the election, and whether there was any coordination, and, if so, with whom, between Russia and the campaign…
MCCAIN: You just made it — you just made it…
COMEY: … was ongoing when I left.
MCCAIN: You just made it clear in what you said, this is a, quote, “big deal,” unquote.
I think it’s hard to reconcile, in once case you reach complete conclusion, and the other side, you have — you have not, and you — in fact, obviously, there’s a lot there, as — as we know — as you called it a, quote, “big deal.” She’s one of the candidates. But in her case, you say there will be no charges, and in the case of President Trump, there — the — the investigation continues.
MCCAIN: What has been brought out in this hearing is — is more and more emphasis on the Russian engagement and involvement in this campaign. How serious do you think this was?
COMEY: Very serious. But — I want to say some — be clear. It was — we have not announced, and there was no predication to announce, an investigation of whether the Russians may have coordinated with Secretary Clinton’s campaign.
MCCAIN: … No, but — they may not have been involved with her campaign. They were involved with the entire presidential campaign, obviously.
COMEY: Of course. Yes, sir. And that is an investigation that began last summer, and, so far as I’m aware, continues.
MCCAIN: So both President Trump and former Candidate Clinton are both involved in the investigation. Yet one of them, you said there’s going to be no charges, and the other one, the — the investigation continues.
Well, I think there’s a double standard there, to tell you the truth. Then, when the president said to you — you talked about the April 11th phone call, and he said, quote, “Because I’ve been very loyal to you, very loyal. We had that thing, you know,” did that arouse your curiosity as what, quote, “that thing” was?
MCCAIN: Why didn’t you ask him?
COMEY: It didn’t seem to me to be important for the conversation we were having, to understand it. I took it to be some — an effort to — to communicate to me this — that there is a relationship between us where I’ve been good to you, you should be good to me.
MCCAIN: Yeah, but I — I think it would intensely arouse my curiosity if the president of the United States said “We had that thing, you know” — I’d like to know what the hell that thing is, particularly if I’m the director of the FBI.
COMEY: Yeah, I — I get that, Senator. Honestly, I’ll tell you what — this is speculation, but what I concluded at the time is, in his memory, he was searching back to our encounter at the dinner, and was preparing himself to say, “I offered loyalty to you, you promised loyalty to me,” and all of a sudden his memory showed him that did not happen, and I think he pulled up short.
That’s just a guess, but I — I — a lot of conversations with humans over the years.
MCCAIN: I think I would have had some curiosity if it had been about me, to be honest with you. So are you aware — anything that would believe you (ph) — to believe that the president or the members of the administration or members of the campaign could potentially be used to coerce or blackmail the administration?
COMEY: That’s a subject for investigations, not something I can comment on, sitting here.
MCCAIN: But you’ve reached that conclusion as far as Secretary Clinton was concerned. But you’re not reaching a conclusion as far as this administration is concerned. Are you aware of anything that would lead you to believe that information exists that could coerce members of the administration or blackmail the administration?
COMEY: That’s not a question I can answer, Senator.
BURR: Senator’s time has expired.