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Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and helped Donald Trump win. We look back at history and ask: Will they do it again?

USA TODAY

Former FBI Director James Comey, whose 2017 dismissal by President Donald Trump unleashed a broader investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia led by special counsel Robert Mueller, on Wednesday defended the inquiry that he initially helped launched as “essential.”

“Overall, I’m proud of the work,” Comey told a Republican-led Senate panel investigating the government’s early handling of the Russia investigation that shadowed much of Trump’s presidency.

At the same time, the former director also conceded that there were “significant and important failings” in the bureau’s repeated pursuit of surveillance authority to track former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, as part of the investigation.

Pressed repeatedly by Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Comey said he would not have approved multiple wiretap applications targeting Page had he known that the requests filed with the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had been rife with error, as determined last year by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

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Former FBI Director James Comey said President Trump would’ve been charged with obstruction if he wasn’t president, during a CNN town hall broadcast.

USA TODAY

Nevertheless, Comey said the flawed warrant represented a “far less important” part of the overall investigation that went on to review the former director’s firing as part of an effort by Trump to obstruct the inquiry.  

Comey, whose firing has since become the subject of a memoir and television drama, is the third high-profile witness in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s inquiry, which has cast the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election as a politically motivated operation to undermine candidate Trump and later the Trump presidency.

On Wednesday, Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., seized on the Page surveillance warrant, suggesting that the FBI and Obama Justice Department turned its back on information that should have raised questions about the basis for seeking the Page wiretap.

Leveling criticism directly at Comey, who appeared via video, Graham said it was “astounding” that the FBI director was unaware of the investigation’s shortcomings, suggesting that the director was “clueless.”

The Justice Department’s inspector general’s findings led to the prosecution of a former FBI lawyer who last month pleaded guilty to falsifying an email used to support the surveillance request. Federal authorities also used an unverified dossier, purporting to chronicle Trump’s prior activities in Moscow, to support the warrant application.

When the FBI obtained the dossier in September 2016, compiled by a former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, Comey told lawmakers he was unaware Steele’s primary source was a suspected Russian agent.

The abuses uncovered by the inspector general, Graham said Wednesday, have “shaken” confidence in the system.

Graham has cast Comey’s voluntary appearance as “the day of reckoning” in the Senate inquiry. Lawmakers already have heard testimony from former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller to lead the 22-month Russia probe, and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who first warned the Trump administration that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his early contacts with Russia.

Republican members joined Graham in blasting Comey’s initial oversight of the investigation, with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pointedly calling the Russia inquiry “corrupt.”

Committee Democrats, meanwhile, including Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, described the Senate hearing as “a political errand for Trump’s reelection effort.”

“We shouldn’t be debasing ourselves this way,” Leahy said.

‘No such thing happened’: Former acting AG Sally Yates says Obama, Biden did not urge Flynn inquiry

‘I’m accountable’: Ex-deputy AG Rod Rosenstein defends oversight of Russia probe but accepts flaws in FBI surveillance

Comey’s firing has reverberated for years, starting with Trump’s acknowledgment that he took the action because of the FBI chief’s handling of the Russia investigation and the president’s connection to it.

Within weeks of Comey’s dismissal, Rosenstein appointed Mueller, paving the way for the special counsel’s wide-ranging investigation.

In explosive testimony a month after his dismissal, Comey told a separate Senate committee that he had memorialized conversations with Trump during the early days of the administration in which the president allegedly requested the FBI director’s personal “loyalty” and asked him to drop the investigation into Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador. 

More: DOJ declines prosecution of ex-FBI Director James Comey for leaked Trump memos, found he violated policy

The memos are the heart of a television miniseries, titled “The Comey Rule,” that made its debut earlier this week.

Graham’s committee has cast a spotlight on the FBI’s handling of the Flynn investigation, suggesting that the bureau sought to unfairly target Flynn. The administration’s first national security adviser would later plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn moved to withdraw that guilty plea in January, claiming the government had breached the plea agreement.

While Flynn awaited sentencing, the Justice Department in May abruptly abandoned the prosecution over the objection of career prosecutors. The move was challenged by the sentencing judge, who has since asked a federal appeals court to reconsider Justice’s decision, leaving the retired Army lieutenant general’s fate uncertain, nearly three years after he first pleaded guilty.

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