Former FBI Director James Comey "violated" his employment agreement by leaking an unclassified memo about his interaction with President Donald Trump to the media, the Justice Department's watchdog concluded in a long-awaited report released Thursday. The leak was widely credited with spurring the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller shortly after Comey's firing in May 2017.
While blasting Comey for setting "a dangerous example" by disclosing the memo, though, the inspector general, Michael Horowitz, wrote in the 83-page report that investigators found "no evidence" Comey or his lawyers had divulged any classified information. The Justice Department declined to bring any criminal charges against Comey.
"Former Director Comey failed to live up to this responsibility [not to disclose sensitive information]," the report said. "By not safeguarding sensitive information obtained during the course of his FBI employment, and by using it to create public pressure for official action, Comey set a dangerous example for the over 35,000 current FBI employees — and the many thousands more former FBI employees — who similarly have access to or knowledge of nonpublic information."
Meeting with Trump
The two-page memo — one of seven Comey wrote about his private conversations with Trump during the first four months of the president's administration — summarized a Feb. 14, 2017, Oval Office meeting with Trump during which the president implored Comey to drop an investigation of Michael Flynn, a former national security adviser.
"I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go," Comey quoted Trump as saying. "He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."
Flynn was under investigation at the time for allegedly lying to the FBI about conversations he’d had with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. about sanctions prior to Trump’s taking office. Flynn subsequently pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
One week after he was fired by Trump on May 9, 2017, Comey shared the memo with a friend, Columbia law professor Daniel Richman, directing him to leak its contents to a New York Times reporter. The newspapers published a story about the memo, helping to trigger the appointment of the special counsel, an outcome Comey told investigators he had sought.
'Other lawful options'
The inspector general, however, took umbrage at Comey's motive to leak the Flynn memo.
"Comey had several other lawful options available to him to advocate for the appointment of a special counsel, which he told us was his goal in making the disclosure," the inspector general’s report states. "What was not permitted was the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive investigative information, obtained during the course of FBI employment, in order to achieve a personally desired outcome."
Trump's apparent call for an end to the Flynn investigation was one of 11 episodes Mueller examined as part of his investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice. Though Mueller did not reach a conclusion about obstruction of justice, Attorney General William Barr later determined that Trump could not be charged with an obstruction offense. Trump has denied asking Comey to end the Flynn investigation.
The investigation into Comey's handling of the memos was launched in 2017 after the FBI determined that some of them contained classified information. Of the seven memos, two were classified as "secret," two as "confidential" and three, including the Flynn memo, as "unclassified."
Comey wrote the memos contemporaneously between January 2017 and April 2017. The former FBI director later told lawmakers he found some of his conversations with Trump unnerving. In a January meeting with Trump, Comey recalled, the president demanded Comey's allegiance, saying, "I need loyalty."
Trump: Comey 'should be ashamed'
Trump has dismissed Comey's memos as fabrications, repeatedly calling him a leaker and a liar. He tweeted on Thursday, "Perhaps never in the history of our Country has someone been more thoroughly disgraced and excoriated than James Comey in the just released Inspector General's Report. He should be ashamed of himself!"
Comey has defended his handling of the memos, saying the disclosure of the Flynn memo was not a leak and that private citizens have the right to disclose to the press their conversations with the president. Comey later turned over the memos to special counsel and congressional investigators.
In a tweet after the release of the report, Comey wrote, "I don't need a public apology from those who defamed me, but a quick message with a 'sorry we lied about you' would be nice."