Excessive ego and failures in judgment often go hand in hand. That’s one lesson made plain by the Department of Justice Inspector General’s report on James Comey and the FBI’s handling of what Bernie Sanders memorably referred to—in defending Hillary Clinton—as her “damn emails.”
The report made a few things very clear. In legal terms, the most important was the finding that the decision to not bring charges against Sec. Clinton was the correct call. The IG found that there was no political bias in that decision, and found that the standard the FBI used in making that judgment “was consistent with the department’s historical approach in prior cases under different leadership, including in the 2008 decision not to prosecute former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for mishandling classified documents.” The Guy Who Lost the Popular Vote by 3 Million can tweet whatever he likes, but that is the key finding when it comes to the question of whether—as his supporters are still chanting more than 500 days after the election—his opponent should’ve been locked up.
Then there’s the matter of failures in judgment. The report cited FBI director James Comey’s egregious failures on the two most important matters relating to the email investigation. First was his decision to issue a statement on July 5, 2016, announcing his recommendation that Sec. Clinton not face charges, a statement that included wholly inappropriate remarks that she and her team had been “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.” Such remarks go far beyond what an FBI director is supposed to say about an investigation. In fact, he’s not supposed to say anything, he’s just supposed to make a recommendation to the attorney general or whomever else is supervising an investigation in case of a recusal.
The IG report went into more detail:
Comey admitted that he concealed his intentions from the Department until the morning of his press conference on July 5, and instructed his staff to do the same, to make it impracticable for Department leadership to prevent him from delivering his statement. We found that it was extraordinary and insubordinate for Comey to do so, and we found none of his reasons to be a persuasive basis for deviating from well-established Department policies in a way intentionally designed to avoid supervision by Department leadership over his actions.
In other words, Comey just said, “Fuck policy. I know best. I’m James Comey.” (Yes, I do imagine him saying this to himself, a la Keith Hernandez on “Seinfeld.”)
Now let’s talk about Bill Clinton’s role in this, in particular the impact of his unplanned yet mind-bogglingly stupid meeting on June 27, 2016, with Attorney General Loretta Lynch—you know, the person ultimately in charge of deciding whether his wife would be prosecuted over the email business.
I can imagine the political strategist in his head saying “Hmmm, maybe don’t go over to her plane,” and then the ego in his head saying, “Come on, I’m special, and besides, I’m so much fun to be around. How can I deprive poor Loretta of the pleasure of my company?”
According to the IG report, Clinton actually said “I don’t want her to think I’m afraid to shake hands with her because she’s the Attorney General. I just wanted to say hello to her and I thought it would look really crazy if we were living in [a] world [where] I couldn’t shake hands with the Attorney General you know when she was right there.” There’s nothing to add to those remarks.
The IG report concluded that nothing untoward happened during this meeting, and that the investigation was not discussed at all. Nevertheless, the report stated that Lynch’s “failure to recognize the appearance problem created by former President Clinton’s visit and to take action to cut the visit short was an error in judgment.”
Politics is perception, and Comey took that “appearance problem” into account in making his decision regarding the July 5 announcement. According to the IG report, Comey “was “90 percent there, like highly likely” to make a separate public statement prior to the tarmac meeting, but that the tarmac meeting “tipped the scales” toward making his mind up to go forward with his own public statement.”
One can only guess at how Hillary and Bill Clinton took the news that he had tipped those scales. Apparently, President Clinton was “offended” by criticism he’s taken over the meeting with Lynch. Really? Okay. Here’s my reaction. Remember how in 2012 Barack Obama dubbed the former president the “Secretary of Explaining Stuff”? Now I’m thinking a more appropriate name might be “Secretary of Fucking Up Really Important Stuff, Like Helping Your Wife Get Elected President Instead of Donald Trump”. How’s that?
But back to Comey. After having already crossed the Rubicon on this matter with his July 5 statement, the FBI director clearly felt that he had the right—no, the duty—to pretty much do whatever he felt necessary to protect whatever it was he felt needed protecting—and my sense is that he believed he was the only one in government with the courage, integrity, yadda yadda yadda to do so.
Then came Anthony Weiner ‘s laptop, and Comey’s decision to tell Congress on October 28, 11 days before the election, that the FBI was essentially going to be reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Remember that the FBI had said nothing about an ongoing investigation, begun in July 2016, into the Trump campaign, the matter of Russia interfering on behalf of Trump, and whether there was coordination between the two. Here’s what the IG report said about that Comey decision, which highlighted exactly that contrast:
We found no evidence that Comey’s decision to send the October 28 letter was influenced by political preferences. Instead, we found that his decision was
the result of several interrelated factors that were connected to his concern that failing to send the letter would harm the FBI and his ability to lead it, and his
view that candidate Clinton was going to win the presidency and that she would be perceived to be an illegitimate president if the public first learned of the
information after the election. Although Comey told us that he “didn’t make this decision because [he] thought it would leak otherwise,” several FBI officials told us
that the concern about leaks played a role in the decision.
Much like with his July 5 announcement, we found thatin making this decision, Comey engaged in ad hoc decisionmaking[sic] based on his personal views even if it meant rejecting longstanding Department policy or practice. We found unpersuasive Comey’s explanation as to why transparency was more important than Department policy and practice with regard to the reactivated Midyear investigation while, by contrast, Department policy and practice were more important to follow with regard to the Clinton Foundation and Russia investigations.
Comey’s description of his choice as being between “two doors,” one labeled “speak” and one labeled “conceal,” was a false dichotomy. The two doors were actually labeled “follow policy/practice” and “depart from policy/practice.” Although we acknowledge that Comey faced a difficult situation with unattractive choices, in proceeding as he did, we concluded that Comey made a serious error of judgment.
This post has examined the ego-driven failures committed by two men. One man’s failures, while far smaller in nature, played a part in helping the other man justify, to himself at least, the disastrous decisions that flowed from his serious errors of judgment. These failures made Donald Trump president of the United States.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity (Potomac Books).
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.