James Comey said the FBI conducted itself in a "responsible, limited, and constrained way" when it conducted "surveillance" of Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos. Comey said he was proud of his team and that the FBI doesn't spy, it investigates.
When asked if sending someone to pose as someone else in order to collect surveillance on Papadopoulos would qualify as spying, Comey said he would not comment as he is no longer a government employee. He then went on to explain the "reasonable" approach the FBI took to surveilling the Trump campaign after learning of Russia's intent to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
"Good evening, Mr. Comey. The New York Times reported that the FBI sent an investigator posing as an assistant to meet with a Trump aide, George Papadopoulos, in 2016. Does that qualify as spying?" a woman in the audience asked the former FBI chief.
"I'm not going to comment on a particular investigative step, because that's for the bureau to do, and I'm not in the government any longer. But the FBI doesn't spy to begin with. The FBI investigates," Comey answered.
"We acted in a responsible, limited, and constrained way," Comey said. "I'm proud of the way we conducted ourselves."
From Thursday night's CNN town hall event with Comey:
QUESTION: Good evening, Mr. Comey. The New York Times reported that the FBI sent an investigator posing as an assistant to meet with a Trump aide, George Papadopoulos, in 2016. Does that qualify as spying?
JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: Yeah, I'm not going to comment on a particular investigative step, because that's for the bureau to do, and I'm not in the government any longer. But the FBI doesn't spy to begin with. The FBI investigates.
And you got to remember where we were in the end of July of 2016. We knew the Russians were engaged in a massive effort to attack our democracy, and then we learn from an allied ambassador that one of President-elect Trump's -- or candidate Trump's advisers had been talking to a Russian representative long before that about dirt they had on Hillary Clinton that the Russians wanted to make available.
We all should have been fired if when we learned that we didn't investigate to figure out, is there a connection between any Americans and this Russian effort? And the FBI, in my view, took very reasonable steps, careful steps to try and understand, is that true? And I can't believe Republicans would have wanted it any other way. And we acted in a responsible, limited, and constrained way. I'm proud of the way we conducted ourselves.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: You said it's not spying. Why do you think Attorney General Barr used the word spying, which is obviously a word that the president has used, as well?
COMEY: I can't explain it. I mean, the only explanation I can think of is he used it because the president uses it, which is really disappointing. He knows better than that and knows that the FBI conducts electronic surveillance by going to federal judges and getting warrants based on probable cause.
COOPER: But sending an investigator undercover to meet with somebody who is connected to the campaign, they claimed he was later on just a coffee boy, that is an extreme step, no?
COMEY: No, it's a reasonable -- that was the guy, Papadopoulos, who was the subject of the information we got from the Australians, that he had talked to the Russians.
COOPER: Did you sign off on the investigator going?
COMEY: I don't remember talking about that particular step with my team. I knew they were trying to see if they could check it out. That's a totally normal step, see if you can get somebody close to the person and see if they'll confirm what we heard from the Australians.
COOPER: How involved were you overall overseeing the investigation? Because, again, this is an investigation where at this point, on the Papadopoulos -- you know, the -- Donald Trump had already been named the candidate for the Republican Party.
COMEY: Yeah, I was involved the way the director should be involved, briefed on it on a regular basis, but the director never runs an investigation. But they kept me closely informed, because I had told them this is important, I want it kept very close hold, but do what you need to do under our authorities to figure out whether there's something...
COOPER: So you're saying you're not sure if you knew they were sending somebody under cover to talk to Papadopoulos?
COMEY: Well, I don't want to confirm. I want to leave to the FBI to confirm what investigative steps they took. That news article wasn't, I don't think, based on an official release. So I don't want to comment on particular steps. But in general, they would tell me we're following through to try and understand whether there's evidence to establish this.