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By Mike Memoli

WASHINGTON — House Republicans, with just weeks left in control of key committees, grilled former FBI Director James Comey behind closed doors on Friday as they wind down a year-long probe into key investigative decisions the agency made in the 2016 election.

Members of both parties were girding for a marathon day of testimony that came under protest by Comey, who had initially waged a legal fight against the Judiciary Committee subpoena as he pressed lawmakers to allow him to answer questions in a public hearing.

The House Judiciary and Oversight Committees have been jointly running the investigation largely behind the scenes this year, bringing in an array of former Justice Department, FBI and Obama administration officials to answer questions about whether political considerations drove the FBI’s handling of both the Hillary Clinton email probe, and a counterintelligence investigation into Russian attempts to interfere in the U.S. election.

Comey served as FBI director during that critical juncture. And while he has already testified before other House and Senate panels, some of President Donald Trump’s most stalwart defenders insisted on bringing him before their panel.

Comey has repeatedly said he was willing to answer questions in an open hearing. But House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., served him a subpoena on the eve of Thanksgiving compelling him to appear in private. Comey initially filed suit challenging the subpoena, arguing that Republicans were more interested in selectively leaking testimony to advance their own political narrative than pursuing the truth.

Ultimately, though, Comey reached an agreement with the committee to testify behind closed doors, on the condition that a full transcript of the proceedings be released within 24 hours.

“Jim recognizes the oversight function of Congress and has respect for the institution,” Comey attorney David Kelley told Ari Melber on MSNBC’s “The Beat” this week. “He wanted to be transparent. If you want to know about these investigations, great. Let’s talk about it publicly. That’s what this fight was about.”

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a member of the House Oversight Committee, said he wanted to ask Comey about information that may have been collected on Trump campaign associates before the Justice Department formally launched its counterintelligence investigation in July 2016. And he defended the rush to interview key witnesses — Republicans are also seeking testimony from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch — with just weeks left the current congressional term.

“For us to just pack it up and go home is not what the American people deserve and for the most part it’s not what they expect,” he said.

Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who will serve as Judiciary Committee chairman when Democrats gain control of the House in January, blasted Republicans for pursuing an investigation he called a “waste of time.”

“The entire purpose of this investigation is to cast aspersions on the real investigation with Mueller. There’s no evidence whatsoever of bias at the FBI or any of this other nonsense they’re talking about,” he said.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., a member of the Oversight Committee, said Comey was “the right witness for the wrong questions.”

“I think the Republicans brought him here to talk about Hillary Clinton. That’s a settled issue. Instead we should be talking to him about the ongoing Russia investigation,” he said.

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who will serve as the top Republican on the Oversight Committee in the next Congress, cited previous testimony to the committee that claimed Christopher Steele, author of the so-called dossier into Trump’s ties to Russia, told a top Justice Department official that he was determined to stop Trump from becoming president.

Steele’s dossier was cited in a secret surveillance warrant against Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page, though Democrats and Republicans have bitterly contested the question of whether dossier information was a critical part of the warrant application.

“I want to know when James Comey knew that, and more importantly, did he know that before they went to the FISA court with Mr. Steele’s work product. I think that’s an important question” he said.

Jordan said he did not know whether the committees’ Republican chairmen, Goodlatte and Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., planned to issue a final report after interviews are completed.

“That’ll ultimately be the call of Chairman Goodlatte and Chairman Gowdy.”

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Nick Ayers, Mike Pence’s right hand, likely to be Trump’s next chief of staff

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By Vaughn Hillyard, Hallie Jackson, Kristen Welker, Geoff Bennett and Carol E. Lee

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump appears poised to replace current chief of staff John Kelly, the 68 year-old, four-star marine general, with a 36-year old multi-millionaire who has a reputation as a polarizing and hard-charging fixture in Republican politics, multiple officials tell NBC News.

Nick Ayers, who has served in the administration as the chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence for the last 17 months, has agreed to serve as acting chief of staff to President Trump, a senior White House official tells NBC News. Trump has discussed with Ayers the prospect of him serving as his right hand in the West Wing for months.

But the official tells NBC News that Ayers had planned to return to his home in Georgia, with his wife and six-year-old triplets, at the end of 2018 and has told the president that he cannot make the two-year commitment that the president has requested he make, which has held up the process of naming him to the position.

Ayers did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.

Ayers would serve as the president’s third chief of staff in less than two years. Former RNC chief Reince Priebus served as chief of staff for the first six months of the administration before the president turned to retired four-star Marine general John Kelly.

Trump, in a 2012 tweet, castigated President Obama for rotating through three chiefs of staff early in his first term.

The Georgia native has increasingly garnered the ear of President Trump since joining the administration in mid-2017.

Ayers has made his name off of his political consulting, including his work for Target Enterprises, a TV ad buying firm. He ran Tim Pawlenty’s failed presidential campaign in 2011, and has advised numerous gubernatorial campaigns around the country.

There are questions about a potential domino effect if Trump ultimately names Ayers to the role. Inside the White House, there are murmurs that numerous staffers have threatened to quit. But sources say that Ayers is viewed favorably by both Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, and has also received high praise from Pence, his current boss. And some of those who had originally pushed for Kelly as chief of staff have soured on him over time.

“If the president is going to make any changes, I’ll leave it to the president to announce changes,” Pence told reporters while on an overseas trip in November. “But Nick has done a phenomenal job.”

Nick Ayers, Chief of Staff to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in the East Room at the White House in Washington on Oct. 23, 2017.Jonathan Ernst / REUTERS

Ayers has drawn scrutiny at times within the White House. In early 2018, Pence tapped GOP pollster Jon Lerner to serve as his national security adviser. Lerner, who worked with Ayers on Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign, soon withdrew his name from the job after questions arose about his past campaign work opposing Trump’s candidacy for president. Ayers also considers himself a close friend of outgoing U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

He first began working as a political consultant to Pence in early 2015 after the then-governor of Indiana signed a controversial religious freedom restoration law, which, opponents contended, would allow for the discrimination of LGBTQ individuals in Indiana. Pence, who had eyed his own potential presidential run, would go on to sign an amended version of the law that explicitly prevented discrimination when providing services.

Ayers would continue his work with Pence over the following year and aid in the vetting process that led to the Indiana governor’s selection as Trump’s running mate in 2016. During that campaign, Ayers served as the chairman of Pence’s vice presidential campaign operation.

If tapped, Ayers would serve as the president’s third chief of staff in two years. Former RNC chief Reince Priebus served as chief of staff for the first six months of the administration before the president turned to retired four-star Marine general John Kelly.

The selection of Ayers would sharpen the administration’s focus on the president’s re-election efforts, notably after the GOP lost 40 House seats in this November’s midterm elections.

Ayers helped launch the main pro-Trump super PAC, America First Policies, as well as Pence’s leadership PAC, Great America Committee, in 2017.

But Ayers first emerged onto the GOP playing field while in college at Kennesaw State University, serving as body man to Sonny Perdue and eventually the campaign manager for the Georgian’s re-election bid. He would go on to lead the Republican Governors’ Association at the age of 24 and then helmed the short-lived 2011 presidential campaign of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

It was on that campaign that Pence would hire Sarah Huckabee Sanders as Pawlenty’s Iowa state director and now-acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker served as the campaign’s Iowa chairman.



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Comey says he launched probe into Clinton email leaks before he was fired

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By Mike Memoli

James Comey, based on public comments from top Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani and others in October 2016, launched an investigation into leaks about the Hillary Clinton email investigation that he suspected originated in the New York field office, he told congressional investigators Friday, but said he was fired from the FBI before it reached a conclusion.

Comey said Giuliani appeared to be making statements at the time “based on his knowledge of workings inside the FBI,” raising concerns to him “that we may have a leak problem,” according to a transcript of the former FBI director’s testimony released Saturday.

Facing questions from both Democrats and Republicans on the House Judiciary and Oversight committees, Comey also told lawmakers that he was willing to “bet my life” that Robert Mueller was conducting his sweeping probe of the president, former campaign associates and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election with integrity.

Former FBI Director James Comey testified Friday to the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees in Washington.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

“There are not many things I would bet my life on. I would bet my life that Bob Mueller will do things the right way, the way we would all want, whether we’re Republicans or Democrats, the way Americans should want,” he said.

Comey spent nearly seven hours Friday before the joint committee hearing, as part of a GOP-led investigation into how the Justice Department handled both the Clinton email investigation and the origins of a counterintelligence investigation of Russia’s interference in the last presidential election.

Democrats have blasted the effort as nothing more than an attempt to undermine public confidence in the special counsel investigation overseen by Robert Mueller. Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who will likely become chairman of the Judiciary Committee when Democrats take control of the House next month, told reporters Friday he would end the joint committee investigation.

Comey also expressed frustration to reporters after his testimony that most of the questions he faced were focused on the Clinton email investigation, something he has addressed before multiple other congressional panels and in his own book. Lawmakers have asked him to return on Dec. 17 for additional questions.

“I’m not sure that we need to do this at all,” he said. “But, I’m trying to respect the institution and answer questions in a respectful way.”

Comey did tell lawmakers that he would have removed senior DOJ officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page from their roles as part of the Clinton email probe if he had known at the time about a cache of text messages between the two that showed a bias against Trump.

“Based on what I have seen in the media since I left the FBI, that unless there was some explanation for that that I was missing, in my judgment, they wouldn’t have remained part of the investigation,” he said.

But he later said that nothing in how Strzok handled his work led him to believe he was acting on any personal political beliefs.

“Peter Strzok helped draft my letter to Congress on October 28th that Hillary Clinton blames for her defeat. So it’s hard for me to see how he was on Team Clinton secretly at that point in time,” he said.

The transcript was released as a condition for Comey agreeing to testify behind closed doors. He initially sought to quash the Judiciary Committee’s subpoena, having offered already to answer questions in a public hearing.

The joint committee investigation initially was to focus on the Justice Department’s handling of the Clinton email probe but expanded to incorporate questions about when federal investigators first began scrutinizing potential ties between Russians and Trump campaign associates.

Republicans expressed frustration that Comey was prevented from answering key questions related to the ongoing Mueller probe on the advice of a Justice Department lawyer who was present for the interview.

Republicans have seized on the fact that information from a dossier exploring then-candidate Trump’s connections to the Kremlin, compiled by a former British intelligence operative at the behest of an opposition research firm paid in part by Democrats, was cited in the application for a secret surveillance warrant on a Trump campaign foreign policy aide, Carter Page.

Comey did tell lawmakers that he personally was not aware during his time as FBI director that Christopher Steele’s research for Fusion GPS was paid for at least in part by a law firm with ties to the Clinton campaign.

Some of Comey’s testimony covered his view of events that have taken place since he was dismissed as FBI director in early 2017.

Asked by one Democratic lawmaker what would happened to the special counsel’s investigation if the president were to fire Mueller, Comey responded that it was unlikely to derail it.

“As an informed outsider … you’d almost have to fire everyone in the FBI and the Justice Department to derail the relevant investigations,” he said.

Comey did praise Trump’s new nominee to serve as attorney general, William Barr, saying he was “certainly fit” to return to the post he held in the George H. W. Bush administration. He said he was confident that Barr would seek advice of career officials at the Justice Department about whether his comments about Clinton, Trump and the Mueller probe made as a private citizen should force him to recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller team.

“It raises a question with respect to him, so I’m sure he’s going to want to look at it, as will the Senate, very closely,” Comey said.

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Theresa May braces for NO CONFIDENCE MOTION after Brexit vote as Labour plot her demise

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LABOUR has held discussions with the Democratic Unionist Party to try to topple Theresa May by triggering a vote of no confidence vote in her leadership, rather than a vote on the Conservative Government as a whole.

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