FBI Director James Comey strongly defended Wednesday his decision to alert Congress just days before the 2016 election about his agency's investigation into emails potentially related to Hillary Clinton's personal server, telling senators while the idea of impacting the election made him "mildly nauseous," he would not change what he did.
"It was a hard choice, I still believe in retrospect the right choice," Comey told senators at a judiciary committee hearing on oversight of his agency. "I can't consider for a second whose political fortunes will be affected."
Comey is testifying the day after both the sitting US President and the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee sharply criticized him for his role in the outcome of last year's presidential election.
"A cloud of doubt hangs over the FBI's objectivity," committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said in his opening remarks, which listed a series of issues he took with the agency. The Iowa Republican added later, "The public's faith in the FBI, Congress, and our democratic process has been tested lately."
Grassley originally called the Wednesday oversight hearing of the FBI to examine what the agency knows about a 2015 terrorist attack in Garland, Texas. But the broad oversight hearing almost immediately shifted to the FBI's investigation into Russian meddling in the US elections, a subject on which there are four congressional probes in progress which have led to a steady stream of revelations since President Donald Trump was elected.
Comey has become an almost equally divisive figure for Republicans and Democrats for his impact on the 2016 elections. His revelation that the FBI was examining additional emails from Hillary Clinton that were discovered on disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner's computer, has led Democrats -- including Clinton herself -- to say it cost them the White House.
"I was on the way to winning until a combination of Jim Comey's letter on October 28 and Russian WikiLeaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me and got scared off," the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee said Tuesday in an interview conducted by CNN's Christiane Amanpour at the Women for Women International summit in New York.
Following those remarks, Trump criticized Comey the night before the hearing.
"FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds! The phony......Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election. Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign?" Trump said in a pair of tweets Tuesday.
Senate Democrats say the plan to grill the FBI chief about his decisions in the final days of the US election last year and his timing for releasing that information.
"The most important investigation the FBI is currently conducting is into Russia's interference in our last presidential election," Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat on the Senate judiciary committee, told CNN Tuesday. "This isn't just about understanding Russian interference and potential coordination of some kind with the Trump campaign. This is about defending our next election as well."
But Comey's public announcement during the March House Intelligence Committee hearing that the FBI has been investigating possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives since last July sparked the anger of Trump and his allies.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat on the judiciary committee, said he and others also plan to grill Comey on why he announced that the FBI was looking again at Clinton's emails -- just days before the election.
"The American people really deserve answers about why he did release his comments and letter, and I think he may want to be more forthcoming and he may want to use this forum as an opportunity to tell the American people his side of the story."
Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is leading his own investigation into Russia's interference in the election, said he still wants Comey to answer whether the FBI issued any warrants against the Trump campaign -- a question he asked months ago.
"I just want an answer. I just want to know what is going on here," Graham said Tuesday. "You had (former Director of National Intelligence James) Clapper say there was no surveillance of the Trump campaign or Trump Tower. You've got press reports a FISA warrant was issued for Carter Page because of his ties to Russia. I just want to know what happened. And if we can't do it in an open session, let's do it in a closed session."
Most recently, CNN reported Tuesday that former acting Attorney General Sally Yates is prepared to testify before a Senate panel next week that she gave a forceful warning to the White House regarding then-national security adviser Michael Flynn and his conversations with the Russians nearly three weeks before he was fired, contradicting the administration's version of events.
Wednesday's meeting will be the first of two consecutive hearings for Comey this week. The second will be a closed-door meeting with the House Intelligence Committee, focused largely on follow-up questions from their explosive first meeting in March.