The Department of Justice’s inspector general has completed an investigation into former FBI Director James Comey and concluded that Comey violated FBI rules in how he handled “certain memos” related to the Russia investigation. However, these memos are not memos that circulated through the department. They’re not even really memos. These are the documents that Comey wrote for himself to document his interactions with Trump at a point at which he believed that Trump was badly overstepping the bounds of how his office should seek to influence the FBI. So … the inspector general has concluded that Comey “mishandled” documents that he created himself, for himself, for the purpose for which they were used.
That’s a very odd claim. And it may be why, despite some very harsh language contained in the report, Attorney General William Barr has already backed away from laying any charges against the former FBI director.
Two of the memos that Comey prepared for himself do appear to have contained some information that Comey considered to be classified. However these memos—memos one and three out of the seven under consideration—were never shared with anyone. So the worst that can be said is that the FBI director took these memos, which he wrote, and kept them locked inside a safe in his home. The only memos that Comey allowed anyone else to view were memos he wrote that did not contain any classified information.
All of this would seem to be a sign that Comey, for all his obvious faults on many, many points, handled these sensitive documents very well. After all, Comey was convinced that Trump was not only interfering in an investigation, but also pressuring him for personal loyalty and seeking undue influence over the FBI. With that in mind, it would have made little sense to keep these documents in a place where all Trump had to do in order to keep them forever under lock and key was simply fire the one person who was noting down his actions.
However, in the mind of Inspector General Michael Horowitz, concerns about the future of the nation and proper administration of the Justice Department did not trump (small T) the FBI’s internal rules over document handling. Which makes this entire report a triumph of upholding the most picayune regulation even in the face of the greatest possible threat.
Comey was, and is, certainly capable of putting himself ahead of the rules—way ahead of the rules. In his actions involving both Trump and Hillary Clinton, Comey repeatedly decided that following the rules was not for him. There is an almost unlimited catalog of situations in which James Comey allowed his ego to convince him that he was the only man with enough integrity to act and that he Didn’t Need No Stinkin’ Rules. In fact, if James Comey was not one of the world’s great self-righteous blowhards, there would be no Trump to worry about in the first place.
But what’s covered in the inspector general’s report seems to be the mildest of violations, and it takes considerable effort to show that it even is a violation. According to Horowitz, “Comey had several other lawful options available to him to advocate for the appointment of a Special Counsel, which he told us was his goal in making the disclosure,” but Horowitz does not say what any of those lawful options might have been, or provide any odds of success when it came to convincing Trump officials to launch such an investigation while all relevant information was kept from the public. Horowitz then follows up by saying, “What was not permitted was the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive investigative information, obtained during the course of FBI employment, in order to achieve a personally desired outcome.” Except that none of the information released by Comey was “sensitive” in the sense that it was classified in any way. In making this statement, the inspector general appears to be buying into the idea that any word that drops from Trump’s lips is by nature immediately subject to privilege—a rule that, no matter how much Trump and Barr think it to exist, does not exist.
Despite all the harsh headlines proclaiming that the inspector general report takes Comey to the woodshed, these are the mildest of findings over one of the mildest things that Comey did as head of the FBI. This is nothing. Which won’t, of course, stop Trump from using it both in Twitter and in his rallies as more evidence that Comey was part of some “deep state” conspiracy. It won’t stop the Q-theorists from claiming some kind of vindication. It won’t stop every Fox News pundit from getting a grateful day away from explaining Trump’s latest inexplicable statement while they go after Comey.
But this is diddly. And also crap. Which is best indicated by the action that Barr intends to take. Which is nothing.