President Trump shakes hands with James Comey, then director of the FBI, at the White House on Jan. 22. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
President Trump’s first day back in the office after his brief trip to Europe began, as so many do, with a flurry of tweets. It seems that Trump, as he so often does, tuned in to “Fox and Friends” on Monday morning, the show on which he made regular Monday-morning phone-in appearances prior to his entry into politics. And, as he has in the past, Trump appears to have taken information out of context to level a serious charge against a political opponent.
The relevant sequence of events goes like this. In the show’s six-o’-clock hour, it ran a segment addressing a report from the Hill about memos FBI Director James Comey wrote documenting his conversations with Trump prior to being fired.
After that segment aired, the show’s social media team tweeted a clip:
Report accuses material James Comey leaked to a friend contained top secret information pic.twitter.com/Hkg4cAb6o9
— FOX & friends (@foxandfriends) July 10, 2017
The president retweeted it — following up with thoughts of his own.
James Comey leaked CLASSIFIED INFORMATION to the media. That is so illegal!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 10, 2017
In short order, adviser Kellyanne Conway was promoting the story on ABC, calling it the real bombshell of the day (unlike that story about Donald Trump, Jr.).
Conway: "The big bombshell this morning is Jim Comey disclosing…" @GMA
It’s obvious why Trump’s team embraced this idea that Comey had leaked classified information to his friend: It reinforces the president’s prior arguments that the man he fired was the real villain in their interactions. After Comey testified on Capitol Hill, Trump suggested that the testimony was a complete vindication of himself and that Comey was “a leaker.” This charge was based on the revelation that Comey had given one of those memos about his conversations with Trump to a friend to give to the New York Times. In a later tweet, Trump set the table for his enthusiasm Monday morning, asking if Comey’s use of the memos was “totally illegal?”
The “Fox and Friends” segment begins with a snippet of Comey’s testimony. A Fox News host then summarizes:
It turns out, he may actually have broken the rules. A brand-new bombshell report accuses Comey of putting our national security at risk. According to the Hill, the former FBI director’s personal memos detailing private conversations with President Trump contained top secret information.
In the tweet, that becomes “Report accuses material James Comey leaked to a friend contained top secret information.”
If Comey gave classified information to someone without security clearance to leak to the press, it’s problematic. But that’s not what the Hill’s report says.
That report says that there were a total of seven memos prepared by Comey after his nine conversations with Trump. Four of those memos are marked as classified at the “secret” or “confidential” level, officials told the Hill.
In other words, the pool of documents looks like this.
It’s true that “the former FBI director’s personal memos detailing private conversations with President Trump contained … secret information,” as the Fox report summarizes, though not, apparently, top secret material. (The levels of classifications go “confidential,” “secret” and then “top secret.”) But the wording on that Fox report is misleading. The memos contained classified information is true when considering the memos as a group. It is not true, though, that each memo contained classified information — or, at least, it’s not true that each memo was marked as being classified.
This issue came up during Comey’s June testimony, at which point Comey made clear that the memo he gave to his friend to leak, documenting a meeting on Feb. 14 of this year, was not one that included classified material.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.): I found it very interesting that, that in the memo that you wrote after this February 14th pull-aside, you made clear that you wrote that memo in a way that was unclassified. If you affirmatively made the decision to write a memo that was unclassified, was that because you felt at some point, the facts of that meeting would have to come clean and come clear, and actually be able to be cleared in a way that could be shared with the American people?
Comey: Well, I remember thinking, this is a very disturbing development, really important to our work. I need to document it and preserve it in a way, and this committee gets this but sometimes when things are classified, it tangled them up.
Comey: It’s hard to share within an investigative team. You have to be careful how you handled it for good reason. If I write it such a way that doesn’t include anything of a classification, that would make it easier for to us discuss within the FBI and the government, and to hold onto it in a way that makes it accessible to us.
He also during that testimony indicated that the same didn’t hold true for all of the memos he wrote.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.): The memos that you wrote, you wrote — did you write all nine of them in a way that was designed to prevent them from needing classification?
Comey: No. On a few of the occasions, I wrote — I sent emails to my chief of staff on some of the brief phone conversations I had. The first one was a classified briefing. Though it was in a conference room at Trump Tower, it was a classified briefing. I wrote that on a classified device. The one I started typing in the car, that was a classified laptop I started working on.
(Note that Heinrich refers to nine memos, assuming that there was one for each of Comey’s interactions with the president.)
During his testimony, Comey refers to the memo he gave to his friend in the singular — “the memo.” There’s no indication that he asked that one of the classified memos be leaked. In fact, his testimony — under oath, remember — was the opposite.
In other words, Comey asserted that the scenario looked something like this:
The tweet from “Fox and Friends” based on the Hill report is incorrect. And so, too, is Trump’s tweet. If there was classified information in the memo that Comey asked his friend to leak to the Times, that’s not yet been reported.
Which is not to say that Comey’s behavior was without concern. FBI agents sign an agreement prohibiting unauthorized disclosures of certain types of material. The Hill’s report notes that the FBI apparently considers Comey’s memos to have been government documents, not his own personal memos as he asserted on Capitol Hill. The repercussions of that aren’t clear.
This is not the first time that Trump has seen a misleading bit of information on “Fox and Friends” and made the problem worse. In March, the show looked at data on the release of prisoners from Guantanamo, which Trump then used to attack President Barack Obama. One might have thought that Trump would have learned his lesson at that point.
But it appears that the opportunity to hammer his political opponents is often too urgent in his mind to ensure that he’s doing so accurately.