Josh Campbell Interview: Ex-Comey Aide Believes Trump Administration Will Try to Destroy Whistleblower
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Josh Campbell is a CNN law enforcement analyst, providing insight on crime, justice and national security issues. Prior to joining the network, Campbell was a supervisory special agent with the FBI and served as special assistant to then FBI Director James Comey. He is an officer in the Navy Reserve, a team member with the Council on Foreign Relations and teaches national security at the University of Southern California.
With his first book, Crossfire Hurricane: Inside Donald Trump’s War on the FBI, Campbell offers an illuminating fly-on-the-wall account that takes readers behind the scenes from the earliest days of the Russia investigation – codename: Crossfire Hurricane – that began in the months leading up to the 2016 election and continues to dominate headlines and spur bitter dissent today.
"I finally came to the realization that our leaders at the Department of Justice weren’t speaking out to defend the institution from political attacks, so I felt that it was my duty to help the American people understand that they were being manipulated about what these agencies are and what they are not."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Josh, how long were you with the FBI, and what were your assignments?
Josh Campbell: I was in the FBI for 12 years, and during that time had worked in a number of assignments at FBI headquarters, in the field conducting investigations and spent quite a bit of time overseas on one of the FBI’s international teams working counterterrorism investigations and kidnapping investigations. Then I was assigned to different entities, worked overseas alongside folks from the CIA as well as the Department of Defense and served in different assignments around the world conducting investigations. Lastly, toward the end, and once I was promoted to management back at headquarters, I served as special assistant to FBI Director James Comey.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The reason you left the FBI is tied to the reason you wrote the book?
Josh Campbell: That’s right. Yeah. There came a point inside the organization where people were becoming increasingly angry with the endless campaign of attacks from the White House on the FBI and the Justice Department. I finally came to the realization that our leaders at the Department of Justice weren’t speaking out to defend the institution from political attacks, so I felt that it was my duty to help the American people understand that they were being manipulated about what these agencies are and what they are not.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So you resigned two years ago?
Josh Campbell: Yeah. Well, almost two years ago. It was January of 2018.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you have information in the book that was not widely known about the Russia investigation?
Josh Campbell: I do. One of the goals was to take readers inside the FBI during this time where it’s obviously very tumultuous. You have an agency that was essentially investigating people in both political parties. You had the Hillary Clinton investigation, and then obviously the Trump campaign investigation. So I kind of bring readers inside and describe how FBI leadership made certain decisions. Some say these decisions may have impacted the course of history. But it really takes you into the mindset.
Obviously, the president has been very aggressive toward the FBI and has called them “deep state” operatives who were engaged in a witch hunt. The one thing I do talk about in the book is that you even had Republicans that were concerned with information they were learning about with the president’s alleged ties to Russia. There were two very powerful Republicans who separately approached the FBI to voice their concerns, one of which was Senator John McCain, and then secondly, Senator Richard Burr who’s the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. So that’s important for readers to understand. This wasn’t just a partisan effort. There were people on both sides of the aisle that were very concerned.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Senator John McCain turned the Steele Dossier over to the FBI.
Josh Campbell: Exactly. He brought it to headquarters to make Comey aware of it. Then separately Burr had pulled Comey aside to let him know that there were things swirling, referring to the Steele Dossier, that very much troubled him.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It was reported that the Steele Dossier was unverified when it came out almost 3 years ago. How accurate is the Steele Dossier now after much time has passed?
Josh Campbell: The FBI isn’t officially saying. That’s part of their investigation, so they really haven’t confirmed anything. But we know through media reporting that the Bureau attempted to recreate certain aspects of the Steele Dossier to corroborate them, and there’s been some suggestion that some of the information has panned out. I don’t think that includes the tawdry details of the Steele Dossier. I’ve seen nothing that corroborates that. But, nevertheless, this was a former intelligence officer from the British Secret Intelligence Service who was an expert on collecting information. His goal was to gather that, and what he found troubled him so much that he decided to bring it to the FBI.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Many people blame James Comey for Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the election because of his comments about her emails in July of 2016 and the letter he wrote Congress in October of that year. Why was the fact that the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign kept from the American people?
Josh Campbell: I had interviewed dozens of people for the book inside and outside of government just to ensure that the readers would get a full picture of different viewpoints. I wanted to ask Comey that very question and get to the bottom of it. His response was that the two investigations were very different in scope and time frame. By the time Comey had announced, at the press conference in July 2016, about Hillary Clinton, that investigation was closed. So he was coming forth to describe things in it.
I asked him, “Why didn’t you tell the American people about the Trump campaign investigation?” Comey’s response was, “By that time, it was in its infancy.” It had just begun in the summer of 2016, and so Comey said, “What would I have told the American people? Would I have told them we just opened this investigation into these campaign people? It didn’t involve the candidate. We didn’t know what was there. So should I have said that we’ll continue to investigate, but by the way, it’s classified, and we’re not going to tell you any more?” He felt like because that was under a different timeline than the Clinton case, it would’ve been inappropriate to divulge that. This is something that Comey faces criticism for.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry just a few days ago after a whistleblower complaint was made public regarding President Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president in which he repeatedly urged him to investigate Joe Biden and his son. There were thoughts that Pelosi actually should’ve began impeachment proceedings after the Mueller report was made public. What are your comments about that?
Josh Campbell: This latest Ukraine scandal certainly feels different in both the way that Congress is handling it and also the way the White House is responding to it. If you look at the Mueller report, he describes at least 10 instances of apparent obstruction of justice by the president. But there’s been this long-standing policy inside the Justice Department that you cannot indict a sitting president. So that’s what I think ultimately saved him.
There have been hundreds of federal prosecutors that have come out saying if he was anyone else and did the things described in the Mueller report, then he would be indicted, but because he’s the president, and there’s this DOJ policy, they did not move on him. They then left it up to Congress, and they didn’t appear to be aggressively moving on it. It just seemed like the wind was kind of out of the sails of the Russian scandal, as I call it, because there was some information there that was derogatory, but it didn’t seem that they were very interested about moving on it aggressively.
That said, I think this situation is very much different because there’s a transcript, and there’s this whistleblower who has come forward to explain things that he learned that troubled him. So I think it’s different because it appears as though the top Democrats are moving at lightning speed on this. They’ve already interviewed witnesses, and they’ve launched an impeachment inquiry.
I also think what makes the Ukraine case different from the Russia case is there’s not a prominent FBI or DOJ role, and that really bogged down the Russia issue because it took nearly two years for investigators to exhaustibly investigate, whereas there’s no criminal investigation here. So this is purely a political decision of impeachment. I think that’s why we see it moving so quickly. My job is nonpartisan, neither right or left, but it seems as though the Democrats don’t feel like they can stomach another year’s long investigation, so they’re moving very quickly.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: From the whistleblower’s report, it says that the White House hid the transcript of the Ukraine call on a secret computer system. Will the FBI or other law enforcement be able to seize that computer and read the documents to find out what else may have been hidden?
Josh Campbell: That is a great question. I don’t suspect they will because the Justice Department reportedly already decided that they’re not going to investigate this. I would argue that if the president and his allies were attempting to slow down this impeachment train that seems to be rumbling down the tracks, it seems like the best thing for them to do would be to call for an FBI investigation or an independent review into what happened.
That would slow things down, allow for a thorough review and also would be done by a nonpartisan entity because we know the House Democrats are inherently partisan. That’s not to say what they’re doing is inappropriate, but it just seems that if you were the White House and faced with a choice between having a Democratic House of Representatives investigate you or have an independent FBI investigation, you would want the latter.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What’s interesting is that Russia has come out saying they hope transcripts of conversations between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are not made public.
Josh Campbell: Right. I think that’s a little bit of trolling on behalf of the Russian president (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Nancy Pelosi has accused Attorney General William Barr of going rogue because of the way he and the Justice Department handled the whistleblower complaint.
Josh Campbell: There are two issues colliding here. One of them is the whistleblower law which says that this information has to get to Congress becase the Inspector General has determined there’s a certain level of severity. So that's blocked by the Executive Branch (the White House and the Justice Department) because their argument is that because it involved the president, these conversations are privileged. So we’re really seeing the testing of these two specific contradictory, legal opinions colliding with each other. But again, what I go back to is if the conversation the president had with Ukraine is really “beautiful,” to use his word, then why not release everything? Obviously, the whistleblower report is out, but it’s yet to be seen if the actual systems will be made available for review in order to determine whether this is a pattern, whether there were other instances of the White House trying to shield embarrassing material in the way that is alleged to have happened here.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In tweets, Donald Trump has attacked the whistleblower and his source or sources.
Josh Campbell: He did. Exactly.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What will happen next?
Josh Campbell: This is very troubling to say and certainly sad to think, but I think they’re going to try to destroy this person. It is the same campaign of attacks that we saw during the Mueller investigation, which I write about at length in the book. It’s destroying people in order to destroy the results of their efforts, and I think that’s the goal here. The president’s already called this person a partisan even though he doesn’t know who it is, and he’s called it a witch hunt.
So, sadly for the whistleblower, I think that’s going to be the goal of the administration to undermine and destroy this person’s credibility. You have someone who has done the right thing, who has gone through the appropriate channels, but what I fear is that will reverberate across government and across the intelligence community, and if there are other people who suspect wrongdoing, they will probably pause before reporting it if they see something very bad happen to this person.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What were James Comey’s opinions about the book?
Josh Campbell: What he took away from the book was really appreciating what I’d done in helping sound the alarm for the American people that these agencies that have been called crooks and criminals are imperfect. They make mistakes. They’re humans, and they have to be held to account where they stray, but in the main, these are agencies of patriots that go to work every single day to protect the American people, and I think he subscribes to that idea as well and has been supportive.
I will also say that the book is critical of Comey at certain times, and we engaged in robust conversations about that after he read it. For example, I criticized the language he used to describe Hillary Clinton’s behavior. I criticized his handling of his personal memos documenting his interactions with the president. He says he obviously disagrees with the criticisms because he believes he had reasons to do what he did. But again, this book is my assessment of some of the key points that have happened over the last three years.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you ever regretted leaving the FBI?
Josh Campbell: No, I haven’t. It has been rewarding being in journalism now. At the end of the day, whether I’m an FBI agent or a journalist, my goal to serve the public is the same. The skillsets are very similar. You’re investigating something that happened. You’re talking to people. You’re gathering information, and you’re working to hold powerful people accountable. Both fields are similar in that respect, so I feel it is rewarding, especially now.
I couldn’t imagine it would be any worse now than when I left, but I just think that when we’re constantly being lied to by people in power, it’s incumbent on those of us in journalism to really point out fact from fiction to the public, otherwise they’ll be manipulated. That’s my goal, and that’s what drives me to keep doing what I’m doing.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Will there be another book?
Josh Campbell: Perhaps. Obviously, this was my first. As I write the book, I was surprised at how productive I was in a condensed period of time (laughs). After I finished the book, my first thought was that I wanted to keep that productivity going and channel that into something else. So I have a couple of other ideas for books in the works, things that I think would be important. But, yeah, that was fascinating looking back on that period and realizing the productivity in a short amount of time (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Josh, to summarize the main theme of the book, what can the public and even the media do to combat Donald Trump’s war on law enforcement agencies?
Josh Campbell: People who know law enforcement or even people who don’t know these agencies personally are all potentially impacted in a negative way if the White House and the president’s allies succeed in destroying the reputations of these institutions. When an FBI agent knocks on someone’s door and needs help with an investigation, or they’re trying to recruit an informant to help go where they can’t go, and these people pause and question whether these agents are credible, that’s when investigations are impacted in a negative way. When an FBI agent rises in a courtroom to testify, and that jury has walked in there with a preconceived notion of the Bureau based on what they hear from the press or the president, and they question if that agent is telling the truth, that is going to negatively impact peace and public safety.
I want readers to understand that campaign attacks have real world consequences. There are things that each and every citizen can do, and one is to not be afraid to speak up. If you’re engaged in a conversation about the news of the day or politics, and when that conversation veers to these intelligence agents being called “deep state” operatives, as the president likes to say, do not be afraid to correct the record and explain, “No. These are institutions of patriots. Where would we be without their public service every single day?” Just don’t be afraid to speak up when you see these institutions targeted for purely political gain.
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