One of the most dramatic moments in then-FBI Director James Comey's May 3 appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee came when Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal tried to press Comey into revealing that President Trump is a target of the FBI's Russia investigation.
"You have confirmed, I believe, that the FBI is investigating potential ties between Trump associates and the Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, correct?" Blumenthal asked the director.
"Yes," said Comey.
"And have not, to my knowledge, ruled out anyone in the Trump campaign as potentially a target of that criminal investigation, correct?"
"Well, I haven't said anything publicly about who we've opened investigations on," replied Comey. "I briefed the chair and ranking on who those people are. And so I can't — I can't go beyond that in this setting."
"Have you ruled out anyone in the campaign that you can disclose?"
"I don't feel comfortable answering that, senator because I think it puts me on a slope to talking about who we're investigating," replied Comey.
"Have you — have you ruled out the president of the United States?"
"I don't — I don't want people to over-interpret this answer," said Comey. "I'm not going to comment on anyone in particular, because that puts me down a slope of — because if I say no to that, then I have to answer succeeding questions. So what we've done is brief the chair and ranking on who the U.S. persons are that we've opened investigations on. And that's — that's as far as we're going to go, at this point."
"But as a former prosecutor, you know that when there's an investigation into several potentially culpable individuals, the evidence from those individuals and the investigation can lead to others, correct?"
"Correct," said Comey. "We're always open-minded about — and we follow the evidence wherever it takes us."
"So potentially," Blumenthal continued, "the president of the United States could be a target of your ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign's involvement with Russian interference in our election, correct?"
"I just worry — I don't want to answer that — that — that seems to be unfair speculation," said Comey. "We will follow the evidence, we'll try and find as much as we can and we'll follow the evidence wherever it leads."
Blumenthal did not succeed in squeezing Comey for information about the possibility the FBI is targeting Trump. But he did put the subject on the table. And Comey's answers — non-committal, non-revealing — did not confirm or knock down Blumenthal's speculation. To that extent, Blumenthal managed to throw out the suggestion that the FBI was targeting Trump himself.
Blumenthal's tactics were so concerning that on Thursday, at a business meeting of the Judiciary Committee not devoted to any aspect of the Russia affair, Republican Chairman Charles Grassley and Democratic Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein both addressed the subject.
In a carefully-written statement, Grassley said that he and Feinstein were indeed briefed by Comey on the particular individuals targeted in the current FBI investigation. And Grassley strongly implied — in fact, did everything but come out and say directly — that the president is not one of those individuals.
"Mr. Comey testified before the Judiciary Committee last week," Grassley began. "Sen. Blumenthal asked him whether the FBI had ruled anyone out as a potential target of the investigation of allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. In response, Mr. Comey stated: 'Well, I haven't said anything publicly about who we've opened investigations on. I briefed the chair and ranking on who those people are.'"
"Mr. Comey did brief Ranking Member Feinstein and me on who the targets of the various investigations are," Grassley continued:
It would not be appropriate for me to reveal those details before the professionals conducting the investigations are ready. So I will not answer any questions about who are targets of the ongoing Russia investigations. But I will say this: Shortly after Director Comey briefed us, I tweeted that he should be transparent. I said he should tell the public what he told Senator Feinstein and me about whether the FBI is or is not investigating the president. On Tuesday, the president's letter said that Director Comey told him he was not under investigation. Senator Feinstein and I heard nothing that contradicted the president's statement.
Trump, of course, said in his letter firing Comey that Comey had told Trump, on three separate occasions, that Trump was "not under investigation."
Finishing his statement, Grassley called on the FBI to "confirm to the public whether it is or is not investigating the president. Because it has failed to make this clear, speculation has run rampant." In what appeared a clear nod toward Blumenthal, Grassley called on the FBI to brief all members of the Judiciary Committee "on what is actually going on."
"Hopefully, that will help temper some of the unsubstantiated statements that have been made," Grassley said.
Feinstein had a prepared statement of her own to make concerning the Comey firing, much of it criticizing the White House's changing rationales for taking action, plus calling for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate. But before she began her prepared remarks, Feinstein said a few words addressing what Grassley had just said about Trump and targets of the investigation.
"Thanks very much, Mr. Chairman," Feinstein said. "I very much appreciate what you've said, and it's very accurate, and we were briefed. And the nature of the briefing was a counter-intelligence and criminal investigation that the FBI was carrying out, and more than that I will not say, either."
What to make of the Grassley-Feinstein exchange? While nothing is ever completely clear in the Russia affair, it seems that Grassley was saying that Comey had told him, and Feinstein, that some individuals were targets of the FBI Russia probe, and that President Trump was not among them.
That's not an exoneration; the investigation could be focused on others around Trump, and perhaps on his campaign as an organization, in a way that could eventually lead to the president. And it's important to remember that James Comey is the FBI director who did not tell the Director of National Intelligence that the FBI had opened a counter-intelligence investigation involving Russia and the 2016 election. Who knows how Comey decided what to tell Congress.
But Blumenthal opened the question of Trump being a target of the investigation right now. Grassley and Feinstein appear to have closed it.