CLAIM

Fired FBI Director James Comey and Special Counsel Bob Mueller are "best friends" which presents a conflict of interest in the Russia investigation.

MOSTLY FALSE

RATING

MOSTLY FALSE

WHAT'S TRUE

Comey and Mueller are former Department of Justice colleagues, and they have a work-related friendship.

WHAT'S FALSE

Comey's attorney says they are not "best friends", and government ethics experts say the relationship doesn't rise to the level of an illegal conflict in relation to the investigation in any case.

ORIGIN

On 12 June 2017, Breitbart.com published a story reporting that former Assistant FBI Director James Kallstrom had told them that fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey is “best friends” with Robert Mueller, a former Bureau director who has been appointed special counsel to lead an investigation into alleged collusion between Russia and the campaign of President Donald Trump. Further, he reportedly told them, that relationship presents a conflict of interest which is hampering the Russia probe:

Bob Mueller and Jim Comey are the best of friends and have been for over two decades. How do you appoint a special counsel who is a longtime friend? It’s a massive conflict of interest.

Breitbart also cited a piece written by journalist Garrett Graff in Politico magazine, in which Graff describes the pair’s working relationship:

While Mueller technically reported to Comey as deputy attorney general, Comey, two decades his junior, treated Mueller as a close friend and almost mentor. The men had known each other for years as each rose into the small, elite fraternity of prosecutors at the top of the Justice Department

As to Kallstrom’s comment, it should be clarified: Comey didn’t appoint Mueller — he had been fired by the time Mueller was brought on board by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

We spoke to Comey’s attorney, who said the extent of the friendship between the two men has been exaggerated. We also consulted experts about whether a past friendship could present a perception of a current conflict. As the term “perception” implies, the answer to that question is subjective.

David Kelley, Comey’s attorney, said the idea that Comey is “best friends” with Mueller is an overstatement. He said the two have a genial relationship as former colleagues — both men have long legal careers that involve overlapping time spent working within the Department of Justice. Their history is even well-documented by the news media. But Kelley pointed out they are not close personal friends:

Jim and Bob are friends in the sense that co-workers are friends. They don’t really have a personal relationship. Jim has never been to Bob’s house and Bob has never been to Jim’s house. … They’ve had lunch together once, dinner together twice, once with their spouses and once after Jim became FBI director so Bob could give him a run-down on what to look out for. [Bob] is not a mentor. He’s friendly, as colleagues are.

Friendship or no, a pre-existing relationship doesn’t mean that Mueller’s role in the investigation rises to the level of the legal definition of a conflict of interest that would require recusal, said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the accountability and transparency lobbying organization Public Citizen:

Conflict of interest means there’s some financial or pecuniary benefit that could come one’s way [as a result of an investigation]. For example, If I had worked at a business and business has something at stake, that’s a conflict. But just people being friends and knowing each other, that’s not a conflict.

Hana Callaghan, director of the Government Ethics Program for Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, told us she doesn’t believe the pair’s past ties rise to the level of a recusable event, but added that it’s not a clear-cut issue when it comes to public perception:

[A friendship] could give rise to the appearance that [Mueller] was acting out of loyalty to his friend as opposed to the public’s best interest in finding out what happened. By the same token [Mueller] has a reputation for being a fair and and impartial public servant. So it’s not a black and white question. …

Not knowing what their past relationship was and knowing former director [Mueller’s] reputation, as an impartial public servant, I’m not sure this is a recusable event, just because they knew each other or worked together. 

National Security attorney Mark Zaid told us in an e-mail:

At worst, there could be a perceived appearance of a conflict to some but not an actual one. Additionally, Special Counsel Mueller has a whole team of prosecutors involved who will participate in any decisions and reports.

Kelley further placed doubt on the claim by pointing out that Comey doesn’t have anything at stake in the investigation’s outcome:

[Comey] is merely one of many, many witnesses and frankly a witness whose credibility has been tested publicly for all to evaluate. The important thing here is Jim has been fired and he accepted that. He doesn’t have skin in this game. So where’s the conflict? A conflict speaks to how Bob would do something to benefit Jim.

Perceptions about Mueller and Comey’s shared history seem largely drawn along partisan lines, and the winding sequence of events shows how politically fraught the investigation has been.

Mueller was brought on board when Rosenstein came under pressure from members of Congress after he penned a letter to President Trump suggesting Comey be ousted — a suggestion the president then acted on. Rosenstein’s participation in Comey’s firing raised questions both about his impartiality and about obstruction of justice on the part of the president, since at the time, the FBI was investigating alleged Trump campaign collusion with the Kremlin.

After he was fired, Comey revealed he had written extensive contemporaneous memos documenting meetings he had had with the president that made him uncomfortable. Comey recounted that Trump demanded loyalty, and pressured him to back off investigating former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Despite the tumult, Mueller enjoys bipartisan respect as a nonpartisan, seasoned, and professional prosecutor. His selection to lead the Russia probe was initially praised by both Republicans and Democrats. But as the investigation has intensified, so too has criticism from the president and his allies. For example, in less than two days (between 15 June and mid-afternoon on 16 June 2017), President Trump has written seven separate, disparaging tweets decrying the investigation as a “witch hunt”:

In an example of how dialogue has evolved surrounding the probe, Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich tweeted praise for Mueller on the day he was appointed, saying:

Robert Mueller is superb choice to be special counsel. His reputation is impeccable for honesty and integrity. Media should now calm down.

Just one month later, Gingrich had completely changed course with a mistrustful and paranoid statement, writing:

Mueller is setting up a dragnet of obstruction, financial questions and every aspect of Trump’s life and his associates lives. very dangerous.

Sources:

Flynn, Daniel. “EXCLUSIVE–Comey’s Best Friend as Special Counsel ‘Massive Conflict of Interest,’ Former Assistant FBI Director Says.”
  Breitbart.com. 12 June 2017.

Graff, Garrett. “What Donald Trump Needs to Know About Bob Mueller and Jim Comey.”
  Politico Magazine. 18 May 2017.

Ruiz, Rebecca R., and Landler, Mark. “Robert Mueller, Former F.B.I. Director, Is Named Special Counsel for Russia Investigation.”
  The New York Times. 17 May 2017.

Watkins, Eli. “Mueller and Comey Have a History.”
  CNN. 17 May 2017.

Barrett, Devlin, et al. “Special Counsel Is Investigating Trump for Possible Obstruction of Justice, Officials Say.”
  The Washington Post. 14 June 2017.

Singer, Phil. “Rare Bipartisan Moment: Both Sides Embrace Robert Mueller as Special Counsel.”
  USA Today. 17 May 2017.

Jarrett, Gregg. “Gregg Jarrett: Trump Should Demand Mueller Quit as Special Counsel.”
  Fox News. 15 June 2017.

Painter, Richard, and Eisen, Norman. “The White House May Claim Mueller has Conflicts of Interest. Oh, the Irony.”
  The Washington Post. 22 May 2017.

Samuelsohn, Darren. “Trump Surrogates Go After Mueller.”
  Politico. 12 June 2017.