Ex-FBI Director James Comey faces sharp questions in closed-door meeting with House committee

(CNN) — Former FBI Director James Comey, under aggressive questioning from Republicans Friday, declined to answer questions about a range of matters because of special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, according to members from both parties.

Republicans tried to press Comey to divulge information about the FBI’s efforts to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page as well as details about the genesis of the Russian investigation. But a Justice Department attorney seated next to Comey repeatedly said he would not be able to answer those questions, according to Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California.

Comey left the meeting just after 4:30 p.m. ET. Comey answered several questions from reporters, saying he’d come back in two weeks to answer more House GOP questions about Hillary Clinton’s emails, which he expressed exasperation about.

“For heaven’s sakes,” he said. He also defended the Justice Department, but he would not comment on the appropriateness of the firing of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month.

“The President’s attacks broadly on the Justice Department and the FBI are something you should find deeply troubling,” Comey told reporters.

Comey had fought the congressional subpoena in court, pushing for a public hearing before settling for some concessions. A transcript of the interview with members of the House Judiciary Committee will be released as soon as possible, perhaps in the next 24 hours.

Emerging from the closed interview, House Democrats said Comey took strong exception to President Donald Trump’s attacks over the FBI, saying it hurts morale at the department.

Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi said that the mood was “a little bit tense” but said it was appropriate for Comey not to answer questions related to the investigation. He also said Comey’s testimony is consistent with his book and previous Hill testimony.

Democrats grilled his handling of the Clinton email probe and his decision to reopen the inquiry days before the 2016 elections. He defended his move saying he didn’t want to conceal info that could impact a presidency, according to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas.

He was “consistent” in his comments about whether Trump obstructed justice in firing Comey, she said. He has consistently stopped short of saying Trump obstructed justice

Comey said that he wouldn’t have handled the Russia or Clinton probes differently than he did, according to Rep. Jimmy Gomez, a California Democrat.

Comey was pressed by members about leaks that may have came from the US Attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York to Rudy Giuliani. And he said he personally ordered an investigation into New York field agents and whether any leaks came from them, according to a source in the meeting. He said he didn’t know if anyone was held accountable from that probe. Comey has previously said he ordered an IG investigation into apparent leaks into the Southern District of New York.

After leaving the interview, Rep. Darrell Issa, Republican of California, told reporters that Comey is not answering some questions at the direction of a Justice Department attorney who is accompanying the former FBI director.

“We will be demanding that he come back and be able to answer,” said Issa.

When asked why they did not want Comey to testify in public as he requested, North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, who took part in the questioning, said they often discuss classified intelligence. “We would be giving him a pass that I don’t think he deserves,” added Meadows.

Meadows said he had 14 pages of questions to ask Comey and that he expected the interview to go for several hours. He said Republicans felt it was important to call him in for questioning before Democrats took control of the House and committees’ gavels next year.

“For us to just pack it up and go home is not what the American people deserve — and for the most part, it’s not what they expect,” Meadows said.

New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, called the panel’s investigation into the FBI a “waste of time,” and would end it when he becomes chairman next year. He added there wasn’t evidence of political bias at the FBI.

Gomez said he asked Comey if William Barr, Trump’s pick to be the next attorney general, should recuse himself from overseeing the special counsel investigation, given Barr’s past comments criticizing the political donations of some of Mueller’s prosecutors. “I would have liked to see him have more balance on this group,” he told the Washington Post last year.

In a Post op-ed last year, Barr also criticized Comey’s decision to announce the outcome of the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state, rather than presenting his findings to a senior Department of Justice official.

Comey said he has respect for Barr, but if Barr determines he is biased, then Barr should step aside, according to Gomez.

“(Comey) said that we need to make sure that any appearance of bias, that we move away from it,” Gomez said.

Trump fired Comey in May 2017, a move that led the Justice Department to appoint Robert Mueller special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, including potential collusion between Trump’s campaign associates and Russian officials.

Since he was fired, Comey has publicly testified on Capitol Hill, spoken to the media numerous times and released a book on “ethical leadership” and his FBI career.

Over the summer, the Department of Justice inspector general released an extensive report criticizing Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation, calling some of his actions “extraordinary and insubordinate” but did not find that he was motivated by political bias.

That same report was harshly critical of Peter Strzok, a FBI agent involved in the bureau’s Clinton email and Russia investigations. He was later fired after the agency found that he exchanged anti-Trump text messages with former FBI lawyer Lisa Page. But the inspector general report found no evidence “that these political views directly affected the specific investigative decisions that we reviewed.”

Before the interview with Comey Friday, Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, called it a “complete farce” since members could select and leak bits of information to bolster their case until the transcript is released.

“Going forward, I will be advocating for full, open public hearings on issues of this magnitude,” he said.