The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, doubled down on comments she made earlier this week that former FBI Director James Comey potentially broke the law when he gave notes memorializing his conversations with the president to a friend, who then gave them to The New York Times.
Asked on Wednesday “what specifically” Sanders was referring to when she said on Tuesday that some of Comey’s conduct could have been illegal, Sanders replied that “the memos that Comey leaked were created on an FBI computer while he was the director.”
A White House official told Business Insider on Tuesday that “we don’t know” whether the information in the memo Comey gave to his friend was classified. (The friend, Daniel Richman, has insisted it wasn’t.) But Sanders said on Wednesday that “leaking FBI memos on a sensitive case” was illegal “regardless of classification.”
“He claims they were private property, but they clearly followed the protocol of an official FBI document,” Sanders said. “Leaking FBI memos on a sensitive case, regardless of classification, violates federal laws, including the Privacy Act, a standard FBI employment agreement, and a nondisclosure agreement all FBI employees must sign. I think that’s pretty clean, and clear, that that would be a violation.”
Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, told Business Insider on Wednesday that Sanders’ comments were not as straightforward as they seemed.
“It is very hard for me to see what the Privacy Act has to do with the memos written by Comey,” Mariotti said. “The other two things she mentioned were the FBI standard employment agreement and nondisclosure agreement. Those are contracts, not laws. Could they sue Comey for breach of contract? Maybe – but it would be a suit for money damages, not an FBI criminal investigation.”
Asked what she would “like to see happen,” Sanders replied: “That’s not up for me to decide … The Department of Justice has to look into any allegations of whether something is illegal or not.”
Sanders sparked controversy on Tuesday when she said the Justice Department “should certainly look at” prosecuting Comey, whom she accused of leaking “privileged information” and giving “false testimony” to Congress.
Asked for comment, a White House official told Business Insider on Tuesday that Sanders was simply referring questions about the legality of Comey’s actions to the DOJ. Still, many legal and national-security experts found Sanders’ remarks disconcerting and inappropriate.
“It’s hard to overstate how egregious Sanders’ conduct is here,” said Susan Hennessey, a former National Security Agency attorney. “It’s an outright assault on an independent DOJ.”
Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse weighed in on Wednesday morning on Twitter in response to Sanders’ DOJ comments: “FBI Dir Wray said there had not been a ‘whiff’ of White House pressure; he just got his 1st whiff.
“Someone in WH needs to tell them to knock it off,” he said.
Matthew Miller, who served as a DOJ spokesman under President Barack Obama, echoed Whitehouse’s sentiment on Wednesday afternoon, asking where Attorney General Jeff Sessions was.
“Eric Holder would’ve been on phone immediately telling the WH to cut this crap out,” he wrote, referring to Sessions’ predecessor.
Ben Wittes, a friend of Comey’s and the editor-in-chief of Lawfare, a blog dedicated to national-security issues, told Business Insider on Tuesday that “Jim Comey would not have mishandled classified information.”
“In a battle between Comey and the president over any matter of credibility, I would think the question answers itself as to which one I believe,” Wittes said. “And I can’t imagine that Jim is spending any time worried about any investigation of his conduct, whereas I think the president is clearly very concerned about investigations of his conduct.”