As Comey's media tour begins, critics take aim from all sides
Former FBI Director James Comey has been credited and blamed in different circles for two events of enormous political significance—the outcome of the 2016 presidential election and the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller—but in an interview and a new memoir, he insists that politics did not influence his actions and he did not intend for his actions to influence politics.
Comey, who was fired by President Donald Trump last May, launched a two-week media blitz to promote “A Higher Loyalty” with an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that aired Sunday night, defending his choices even as he admitted they had inadvertent ramifications.
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“My view was-- and this is a longstanding practice of the Department of Justice, that in rare cases, you should offer transparency so the American people can take a look at what you did and know that it was done in an honest, competent, independent way,” Comey said.
According to Comey, the book is about “ethical leadership,” but much of the attention has focused more on its recounting of the momentous final year of his FBI career and the political missile it aims at the president who fired him. His criticisms and speculation about President Trump have garnered significant media attention since excerpts first leaked last week, but he has also faced scrutiny over his efforts to explain his handling of the probe of Hillary Clinton’s email practices.
Comey has been slammed by critics from both parties for his public maneuvering to explain and defend the FBI’s work involving the former secretary of state and Democratic presidential nominee. It began with a press conference in July 2016, weeks before the Democratic National Convention, when Comey read a lengthy statement excoriating Clinton for her “extremely careless” handling of classified information but declining to recommend criminal charges.
After he learned in late October 2016 that emails from Clinton were found on a laptop belonging to Anthony Weiner, Comey sent a letter to members of Congress on October 28 informing them that the case was being reopened. A week later, he announced that nothing in the emails changed his recommendation not to prosecute.
Comey’s treatment of Clinton was one reason cited when Trump fired him the following May. After that, Comey had a friend leak details of his meetings with Trump to reporters in part because he wanted a special counsel to be appointed to take over the investigation of Russian interference in the election and ties to Trump’s campaign. He told Stephanopoulos he simply wanted “someone without political conflict” to find the facts.
Many Democrats, including Clinton herself, hold Comey responsible for her loss, both because of his unusual public statements about the investigation and his refusal to publicly confirm that the FBI was also looking into ties between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. For them, his reemergence as a fiery Trump critic has proven frustrating and at times infuriating.
“Jim Comey can be a sanctimonious egotist who’s [sic] inappropriate actions disrupted an election and still be a valid source of damning information about Donald Trump,” tweeted former Clinton campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin Sunday, adding, “Always remember that Jim Comey’s #1 priority is Jim Comey.”
Any effort to keep the investigations apolitical was likely doomed from the start, a point Comey conceded to Stephanopoulos, suggesting the public saw his actions as political even if he did not want them to be.
Comey even acknowledged the potential political consequences, citing an unwritten standard within the FBI that he obeyed with regard to the probe of Russian interference in the election.
“If you can avoid it, you should not take any action in the run-up to an election that could have an impact on the election,” he said. In Clinton’s case, though, he concluded it could not be avoided.
Whether Comey did impact the outcome of the election remains hotly debated. The race tightened in the final two weeks and the revived Clinton probe was discussed constantly in the media, but it is impossible to say how that period would have played out had Comey not sent those two letters.
A FiveThirtyEight analysis of factors that may have influenced the outcome of the election found that the letter coincided with a decline in Clinton’s polling “of a large enough magnitude to change the election result.”
Statements by Trump and his aides after the first letter was released suggest they expected it to upend the race and increase their chances of victory.
In the hours after the letter was made public by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Trump opened two rallies with the news, expressing “great respect for the FBI for righting this wrong.” Days later, he praised Comey personally for the decision.
“It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had where they’re trying to protect her from criminal prosecution,” he told a crowd in Grand Rapids, Michigan on October 31, 2016. “You know that. It took a lot of guts…. I was not his fan, but I’ll tell you what, what he did, he brought back his reputation. He brought it back.”
Richard Benedetto, a former White House correspondent for USA Today and an adjunct professor at American University, sees scant empirical evidence that Comey was responsible for Clinton’s loss, but he is skeptical anyone is going to be swayed in their opinion of the election at this point.
“Hillary Clinton supporters are Hillary Clinton supporters and they’re not changing their minds,” he said. “And Donald Trump supporters are Donald Trump supporters and they’re not changing their minds.”
Comey has defended his announcement as the best choice he could make in a situation where there were no good options. He acknowledged in the ABC interview that a different FBI director might have made a different decision, but he stood by his choice even if truly did cost Clinton the election.
“I don't remember consciously thinking about that, but it must have been,” he said of whether that possibility was a factor in his decision. “Because I was operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump. And so I'm sure that it-- that it was a factor. Like I said, I don't remember spelling it out, but it had to have been. That-- that she's going to be elected president, and if I hide this from the American people, she'll be illegitimate the moment she's elected, the moment this comes out.”
Comey also maintained that concealing the reopening of the investigation would have damaged public trust in the FBI and the Department of Justice, even if discussing the case publicly wound up having the same effect.
According to Gary Nordlinger, a political consultant and an adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, Comey’s mindset when he fired off the October 28 letter is key to judging his actions.
“Looking at it with the absolute hindsight of an election where very few of us saw Donald Trump winning, I think you have to grade this guy on a curve,” he said.
Benedetto agreed Comey was put in a difficult position by circumstances and by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who handed the prosecutorial decision in the Clinton investigation over to him after she was criticized over an airport tarmac meeting with Bill Clinton. In the ABC interview, Comey said Lynch did not advise him against any of the actions he took.
“It seems to me it was a political ploy on the part of the Obama administration to let Comey go out there and do the so-called dirty work,” Benedetto said.
In Comey’s telling, fear that word of the new emails would leak before or after the election played into his decisions. He believed he was right and he was convinced Clinton would win anyway. Asked about her opinion of him by USA Today in an interview published Monday, Comey said he hopes she reads the book and sees him as “kind of an honest idiot.”
“It turns out he’s as smart a political predictor as the rest of us are,” said Democratic strategist Scott Ferson, observing that the election still resulted in the outcome being denounced as illegitimate, Republicans calling for Clinton to be jailed, and partisans are chipping away at public trust in the FBI.
Tasked with managing public disclosures about investigations involving both major party presidential candidates that were in different stages, Comey attempted to explain why he handled the two very differently.
“The Hillary Clinton email case, which began with a public referral, and so was public and we were actually investigating the candidate herself,” he told Stephanopoulos. “And the counterintelligence investigations trying to figure out whether a small group of people, not Donald Trump-- we were not investigating Donald Trump.”
Since it was not yet clear if there was anything to the investigation of Russian coordination, Comey said it would have been “brutally unfair” to those involved and would potentially jeopardize the case to speak publicly on it.
The former FBI director appears to have now abandoned any pretense of avoiding politics. He is openly advocating for Trump to be defeated in 2020, using the megaphone his former position and high-profile book release have granted him to build the case that the president is “morally unfit” for office.
Comey has also lashed Trump in harshly personal terms. In various passages of “A Higher Loyalty,” he comments on the president’s hand size, hair, fashion sense, and character, and he discusses in detail salacious rumors about Trump and prostitutes that he could not verify.
“In a kind of Trump-like fashion, he couldn’t help himself in talking about the president’s hair and hands,” Ferson said.
For a book about mature and responsible leadership, the attacks are somewhat off-message.
“Where he belittles his own case is where he talks about the size of Trump’s hands or the white circles under his eyes,” Nordlinger said. “Those are personal snipes that I think lower the elevation of his discourse.”
Nordlinger doubts Comey’s writings will have much impact on Trump’s political standing one way or the other, pointing to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll that found 74 percent of Americans either strongly approve or strongly disapprove of the president.
“Three-quarters of the country think the man can do no right or no wrong…. You can find in [the book] whatever you need for your own affirmation,” he said.
As the final weeks of the 2016 campaign are yet again rehashed publicly, Comey faces a full-on political assault from the president and his allies attempting to brand him as a liar, an opportunist, and even a criminal. The Republican National Committee set up a website calling him “Lyin’ Comey” and quoting Democrats who once questioned his credibility.
“The big questions in Comey’s badly reviewed book aren’t answered like, how come he gave up Classified Information (jail), why did he lie to Congress (jail), why did the DNC refuse to give Server to the FBI (why didn’t they TAKE it), why the phony memos, McCabe’s $700,000 & more?” Trump tweeted Sunday.
“It’s kind of a tried and true formula, whether you’re bank robbers or you’re president of the United States, when you are literally backed to the wall, the only way out is to come out guns blazing,” Ferson said.
Comey has never been formally accused or convicted of any of the crimes Trump claims he should be in jail for, and he denies doing anything improper or illegal. The unsubstantiated attacks may not matter much, though.
“People who hate Comey already hate Comey,” Benedetto said. “People who love Comey already love Comey.”
That said, Benedetto added that Comey could easily have spoken out about Trump when he was at the FBI or anytime in the 11 months since he was forced out. He chose to wait until he could profit off blockbuster book sales, raising fair questions about his motives.
“As a public servant, why is he all of a sudden telling us all these things in a book he should have told us for free?” he asked.