Ever since US President Donald Trump said, “You’re fired”, to FBI boss James Comey, there has been a lot of speculation as to the reasons why.
In a hearing yesterday at the US Senate, Comey said, “I don’t know”, when asked why he thinks he was fired. But his full public hearing raised a lot of suspicions about a number of scenes in the political saga dominating the US news media.
From what Comey described, Trump seems to think movies from the 1970s are still in the public imagination, and conversations are still recorded on tape.
Comey described scenes in which he and Trump – possibly with an eye to future film versions of his life – spoke serious dialogue at various locations, such as the Oval Office at the White House, and fancy restaurants.
In the White House scene, Trump asks the room to be cleared of everyone else before turning to Comey and saying, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Trump was referring to Michael Flynn, the national security advisor who had been fired by Trump for not keeping Vice-President Mike Pence correctly informed about some issue or other.
In a restaurant scene, Trump says to Comey, “I expect loyalty”, to which Comey had replied, “You will always get honesty from me”. A long dramatic pause followed, before Trump said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty”.
Most damningly, Comey told the Senate hearing he didn’t trust Trump and couldn’t be sure that his words wouldn’t be subsequently misconstrued.
While commentators and film buffs can pore over the details of the exchanges between Comey and Trump to find which films they most reference, the most important scene is arguably not at the White House or at the Senate.
It’s actually not a building at all, it’s a server or a bunch of servers, and they belong to the Democratic National Committee, the governing body of the Democratic Party.
While there are many theories about why Comey was fired by Trump, the most interesting is probably the alleged hacking of those DNC servers by Russian spies, and the FBI’s subsequent attempts to investigate.
US government security and intelligence services claim the servers were hacked by the Russians as part of a larger plan to influence last year’s presidential elections. The hackers were said to have stolen information from DNC servers and released it on Wikileaks, which damaged Hillary Clinton’s election campaign.
However, Comey told the Senate hearing that the DNC barred the FBI from looking into the servers. Moreover, he was adamant that the Russians did indeed hack the US elections.
Comey said the DNC had denied the FBI access to its servers despite “multiple requests at different levels”, but eventually allowed access to a “highly respected private company”, which turned out to a cyber security company called CrowdStrike.
Comey was questioned by about a dozen politicians, one of which was Republican Representative Will Hurd, a former CIA officer whose educational background is in computer sciences.
Below are some excerpts from a transcript published on The Washington Post.
Hurd asked: “When was the first time the FBI was notified of the DNC hack?”
Comey replied: “I think August of 2015.”
Hurd asked: “And was that prior to information being leaked to – being sent on – put on WikiLeaks?”
Comey replied: “Yes, the first Russian-directed releases where middle of June of the next year  by DC leaks and this Guccifer 2.0 persona and then that was followed by Wikileaks. So about a year. A little less than a year really.”
Hurd said: “So there was about a year between the FBI’s first notification of some potential problems with the DNC network and then that information getting on – getting on Wikileaks.”
Comey said: “Yes, sir.”
Hurd then asked: “Have you been able to – when did the DNC provide access for – to the FBI for your technical folks to review what happened?”
Comey replied: “Well we never got direct access to the machines themselves. The DNC in the spring of 2016 hired a firm that ultimately shared with us their forensics from their review of the system.”
Hurd then turned to the director of the NSA, Michael Rogers, who was also at the hearing, and asked, “Did the NSA ever get access to the DNC hardware?”
Rogers replied: “The NSA didn’t ask for access. That’s not in our job…”
Hurd interrupted to note that, despite the FBI notifying the DNC before the Wikileaks revelations, the FBI was not given “access to any of the technical or the physical machines that were hacked by the Russians”.
Comey confirmed this and said: “That’s correct, although we got the forensics from the pros that they hired which – again, best practice is always to get access to the machines themselves – but this, my folks tell me, was an appropriate substitute.”
Further questioning revealed the fact that it took 10 months for the “forensic information” to be shared with the FBI.
Comey said that had he known what the outcome would be, the FBI would have tried harder to get access to the servers. “I might have walked over there myself, knowing what I know now,” he said. “But I think the efforts we made, that our agents made, were reasonable at the time.”
Hurd asked if Comey had a “ball park of the number of private sector entities that you have to notify of these types of breaches”.
Comey replied: “Hundreds and thousands. In this particular case, we had to notify hundreds, I think maybe more than 1,000 entities that the Russians were hitting at the same time.”