James Comey, the former and fired head of the FBI, is back in the news again with the publication of his memoir, A Higher Loyalty. We have not read the memoir and therefore will not comment on it per se. But its publication is as good an occasion as any to reflect on why he has achieved the seemingly impossible: hostility directed his way by both leading Democrats and leading Republicans. A sort of reverse political unity, you might say.
A brief review of Comey’s actions that managed to offend everyone:
Last July, Comey excoriated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton for being “extremely careless” with protecting national security as President Obama’s first Secretary of State in the context of her emails. Then he declined to prosecute her. For this, Comey earned the praise of the Democrats and the condemnation of Republicans.
Last October, Comey reopened his investigation into Clinton, sending her polls numbers diving downward, then exonerated her a few days later. For this, Comey earned the condemnation of Democrats and the praise of Republicans.
The point is, the FBI is not supposed to act in a way that is calculated to bend the political winds one way or the other. The FBI is supposed to let the chips fall as they may, based on the evidence before it. Make no mistake, Comey intended to influence the political winds, though they did not flow in the directions he intended.
First of all, it is not the job of FBI directors to hold press conferences in order to announce who should or should not be indicted. That is the job of the Attorney General of the United States, or, since AG Loretta Lynch might have felt she was compromised due to a meeting with candidate Clinton’s husband, the job of an assistant Attorney General. In any event, it is not the job of the head of the FBI. Comey’s wholly unprofessional and perhaps also illegal determination that Hillary Clinton was not to face charges was politically calculated.
Comey apparently felt — though it certainly did not work out this way — that by publicly excoriating Clinton, yet letting her off the hook, he would close the case in such a way as to demonstrate the non-political character of the FBI specifically and the American justice system generally. Reportedly, this is what Comey says in his memoir.
Most of the country found Comey’s logic impossible to follow. What is non-political about an FBI director usurping the authority of the Attorney General? Even more basic, what is non-political about publicizing the twists and turns of an FBI investigation rather than turning over its findings to the Justice Dept., as it is supposed to?
Be all this as it may, it is not within the professional purview of an FBIdirector to act on the basis of any political calculation, even one supposedly designed to demonstrate the agency’s non-political character. It is the job of the FBI to gather its findings and let the chips fall where they may. If that means the indictment of a candidate running for president and a dramatic boost for her opponent, so be it. If that means the clearing of a presidential candidate and a dramatic hit to her opponentcandidacy, so be it. Whatever one’s personal opinion of either Clinton or Trump, it should be of no professional concern for an FBI director. It was Comey’s breach of this fundamental ethical principle that has sullied the reputation of someone who earned the admiration of his colleagues over the years.
If Comey acted — again, with whatever lack of political perspicacity is a separate story — out of the belief that Donald J. Trump was a threat to America and it was up to Comey to do his best to prevent his election, well, we have here a dramatic lack of faith in the American people. The Trump presidency, to be sure, has confirmed deep and offensive flaws in the persona of the President. As for his policies, the American people will evaluate them, and eventually sustain or reject them in whole or in part. But even on the worst reading of the Trump presidency, the country will survive them. It is not up to a professional officer of the law to act in such a way as to intend to preclude Trumpian policies by subverting Trump’s chances for election.
As far as we are concerned, we like Trump’s war on government regulations and dislike his willingness to let Russia and Iran establish a base against Israel in Syria; we like and dislike many other aspects of his presidency. But we have no doubt that America will survive even those of his policies we dislike.
The Economist reports that Comey kept on his desk a request by J. Edgar Hoover to wiretap Martin Luther King, Jr., as a reminder of the FBI’s need for “oversight and restraint.” Comey violated that restraint. The Economist concludes, “His reputation will always suffer for his horrendous error, however many thousands of books he is about to sell.”
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