Since his infamous 2004 showdown with Alberto Gonzales at the hospital bed of then Attorney General John Ashcroft, James Comey has enjoyed his reputation as a paragon of virtue and fighter against partisan attacks on the rule of law. In that confrontation, Comey stood by the bedridden Ashcroft, fighting off Gonzales’ efforts to force the ailing man to sign off on George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping, which the AG had determined was illegal. Comey’s dramatic testimony to Congress following that episode has a now-familiar ring, portraying a valiant Comey as defender of justice.
Comey’s heroism then was questioned by plenty of people—if he’d been so committed to the rule of law, if he was so opposed to the lawlessness of the Bush administration, why’d he stick around? Why didn’t he become a whistleblower? Because Comey isn’t all that, as we learned over the course of 2016 when he inappropriately inserted himself into a presidential campaign, taking actions that ultimately helped elect the guy he’s now calling “morally unfit” for office. In his self-aggrandizing revenge tour against Trump, Comey even admits it. Here’s Greg Sargent writing up an interview Comey did with NPR’s Steve Inskeep.
In it, Comey admits that his decision to sharply criticize Clinton at a July 2016 news conference—at which he closed the email probe — was not only a break with department protocol but also that it would have been “reasonable” under the circumstances to have said nothing.
Asked by NPR’s Steve Inskeep what the FBI would have done to close the case if it had been an “ordinary investigation,” Comey said:
“In the ordinary case, we would most likely in writing prepare some sort of summary of what our investigation had determined and then send it over to the Justice Department, and they would in the ordinary case either say nothing, which is the most common case, or at most issue a letter to the target saying, or the subject saying it’s over, or some minimal statement about it.”
Under ordinary circumstances he’d never publicly criticize the subject. Comey has repeatedly said this case was extraordinary because the FBI would come under heavy scrutiny after closing a probe into a presidential candidate, and he didn’t want the public to lack confidence in the electoral outcome if Clinton won. Comey repeated this to NPR.
Here’s the thing: the Clinton investigation wasn’t an ordinary investigation, and that’s precisely why Comey should have shut up about. He’s admitting that his July 2016 decision to publicly criticize Clinton was against FBI protocol. There’s policy in place to prevent FBI directors from doing things like making public statements or taking action that could directly affect an election, because the FBI director could have undue influence. Comey apparently felt that those rules didn’t apply to him.
They didn’t apply three months later either, when just 11 days before the election, he took it upon himself to make public the fact that “new” emails relevant to the Clinton probe had been discovered—before those emails were even reviewed by the FBI. Those emails turned out not to be new, but to be duplicates of those already seen by the agency. Comey excuses this lapse in his book by saying “It is entirely possible that, because I was making decisions in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president, my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restarted investigation bore greater weight than it would have if the election appeared closer.”
Meanwhile, beginning in July 2016 the FBI had begun investigating possible links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Comey, in private discussions, argued that “it was too close to Election Day for the United States government to name Russia as meddling in the U.S. election.” When the statement came out on October 7, 2016 that the government thought Russia was interfering, it came from the Department of Homeland Security and The Office of the Director of National Intelligence—not the FBI.
Comey doesn’t seem to have any problem with the fact that he overrode FBI policy—that he considered himself above it—when it came to damaging the reputation of the woman he believed was going to become president, and jumping the gun to do so. It was for her own good, he would have you believe, so she wouldn’t be perceived as an “illegitimate president.” Meanwhile, Russia was helping elect the other guy. Making him potentially an illegitimate president. Perhaps Comey shouldn’t have injected himself there, either, though there should have been an overarching national security concern about the possibility that one of the candidates was somehow tied to a hostile foreign government that the FBI knew was interfering in the election.
Partisan or not, Comey was making decisions that proved he was holding himself above the agency he was directing, above the long-held policies that governed how it is supposed to operate—and how he was supposed to operate. His hubris, on full display as he preens and gossips and makes catty remarks about Trump’s spray tan and hand size, quite possibly put this man he considers a dangerous buffoon in office. And even now, Comey says he wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s nothing at all noble in any of that.