Back in the innocent days when we thought that James Comey had merely taken the unnecessary risk of blowing up the world rather than knowing that he succeeded, Paul observed that the Beltway rule of treating Republican Daddies is that no matter how egregiously bad and hackish their behavior and no matter how disastrous the consequences for the country, they must always be celebrated as men of the most Sterling Impartiality and Integritude. Susan Hennessey and Ben Wittes have cooked up what surely must be one of the spiciest meatballs ever served in this genre:
Here’s one key personnel decision, however, that is absolutely clear: FBI Director James Comey must remain in place.
Comey is not a popular man these days, with either the Right or Left. Many on the Right, including Trump and members of Congress, sharply criticized Comey’s decision to recommend Hillary Clinton not be charged over the handling of classified information on a private email server. And their cheering of his 11th hour letter informing Congress that the FBI was reviewing new emails related to the investigation did not last for long either. When Comey announced two days prior to the election that those emails had yielded no new evidence, Trump’s own campaign accused the FBI of outright fraud, claiming that it was impossible to review 650,000 emails (an unconfirmed number) in 8 days (it is possible, thanks to computer programs).
Many on the Left, meanwhile, blame Comey, at least to some degree, for Trump’s victory. They point, fairly or not, to his decision to inform Congress of the discovery of new emails before they were reviewed as at least a—if not the—reason for Trump’s razor thin victory. Even among those who do not blame Comey for Trump’s win, there is still a palpable sense among many in both parties that his letter was inappropriate, and among some that his highly-unusual July press conference was as well.
Moreover, reasonable people across the political spectrum [cites omitted- ed.] were shocked and troubled by the torrent of politically-motivated, and likely false leaks from the FBI New York field office in the finals days before the election. What happened there was not just the malevolent freelancing of a group of individuals; it was also a failure of management, one that damaged the basic integrity of the FBI as an institution. Comey has much work to do to restore faith in federal law enforcement and hold accountable those elements within his own organization that appear to have violated the trust of their offices.
And all that said, now more than ever, we need Comey to lead the FBI.
Whatever you think of Comey’s judgment or conduct during the campaign, his actions have unequivocally demonstrated political independence from his political bosses, as he has in the past. And that is exactly what we will need from the FBI in the coming years.
Ah yes, the core of many such arguments: IF YOU’RE CATCHING FLAK FROM BOTH SIDES, YOU MUST BE OVER THE TARGET! The fatal problems with this defense are that 1)Comey engaged in multiple instances of utterly indefensible behavior that had disastrous consequences and 2)Republicans have absolutely nothing to complain about. Let’s summarize the reasons that Republicans criticized Comey:
- He did not indict Hillary Clinton over EMAILS!
- He issued a letter two days before Election Day indicating that the investigation he had restarted into Hillary Clinton’s EMAILS! very predictably did not yield any relevant new information about the trivial pseudoscandal being investigated.
This Republican criticisms of Comey, in other words, are utterly frivolous. Comey deserves as much credit for not recommending the indictment of Clinton for her EMAILS! as he does for not recommending indicting her for the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. Her use of a private server was plainly not illegal, and there is no evidence whatsoever that classified materials were intentionally destroyed. There is nothing there and never was. Republican criticisms for releasing the late letter that further underscored how grossly inappropriate his earlier letter was and that may well have further hurt the Clinton campaign by allowing Trump to suggest that she got away with something are similarly absurd. This is the self-reinforcing beauty of the Clinton rules: Republicans can manufacture the fog of scandal ex nihilo, the political damage can be done, and then a Republican who refuses to act on the feverish conspiracy theory gets called a great statesman. It’s a nice racket!
Meanwhile, let’s look at the Democratic complaints against Comey, some of which Hennessey and Wittes don’t mention:
- When announcing his water-is-wet decision not to indict Hillary Clinton because she did nothing that was even remotely illegal, he engaged in highly prejudicial and grossly inappropriate editorializing that played a major role in the trivial EMAILS! pseudoscandal completely dominating coverage of Clinton.
- He engaged in similarly highly prejudicial and grossly inappropriate editorializing about Clinton in testifying before Congress and in report the FBI issued before the debates, inflicting further completely unwarranted political damage and adding an official imprimatur to the chief Republican narrative about Clinton.
- Against the wishes of his superiors and in violation of departmental rules and norms, he issued a highly prejudicial and grossly inappropriate letter indicating that the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s EMAILS! was being reopened, based on having found some emails on a computer that did not belong to Hillary Clinton, emails that the FBI did not even have a warrant to search yet. With the current collective margin in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin at less than 100,000 votes it is about as clear as such a counterfactual can be that without this letter the solid winner of the popular vote would also be the president-elect.
- And is if to preemptively confirm that he had not reached a principled (if inappropriate and wrongheaded) determination that the governing rules and norms were wrong but was acting in a self-serving and partisan fashion when he sent the letter that blew up the world, he earlier refused to comment on an investigation that might be damaging to Donald Trump. In summary, where the Republican candidate was concerned, Comey followed the rules against unduly influencing elections. Where the Democratic candidate was involved, his view was “[w]ell, I know the rule is designed to make sure that our investigations don’t influence elections, but I think in this case, we should break that rule, because there’s an election, and we should influence it.”
- As Hennessey and Wittes concede, he horribly mismanaged his rogue New York bureau, and in the kindest construction of his motives compounded the mistake by appeasing them.
- The second letter, discussed earlier. It came too close to the election to give us a clear sense of what effect it had, but given that every previous Comey intervention was followed by a drop in Clinton’s numbers and that Trump overachieved on election day, the Clinton campaign’s theory that is also damaged the campaign is plausible. And even it didn’t, it underscored how inappropriate the first letter was — there was never any non-trivial possibility that the Weiner laptop would reveal material information about Clinton, and there was no reason to inform Congress.
What Democrats are complaining about, in other words, is a pattern of egregious and utterly indefensible misconduct that almost certainly had the effect of putting a unprecedentedly unfit candidate not chosen by the people in the White House. He showed himself to be an incompetent manager who made one catastrophic misjudgment after another, with the cumulative effect of quite literally undermining American democracy himself. The man should be a pariah who bears substantial responsibility for every bad thing Donald Trump does. And yet, astoundingly, Hennessey and Wittes conclude that we must not merely tolerate having this man in charge of the FBI but need him. The fact that he ignored his superiors in the service of personal and/or partisan agendas is being cited as a point in his favor. What can you even say at this point? We need him at the FBI because Bernie Kerik is unavailable?
I guess I can see a narrow argument that Obama shouldn’t fire Comey because Trump’s replacement would be even worse. But, actually, I don’t know that — his actions reveal him to be an ineffective manager with very poor judgment, and the consistent partisan tilt of his actions lends little confidence that his vaunted independence will be asserted against Trump. (I think the statute of limitations on milking that one time he stood up to Alberto Gonzalez has expired.) And there’s something about him just continuing in his office as if nothing happened that seems more than a little wrong. His nonpartisan reputation is a grotesque sham and his actions were unconscionable. And I find it hard to believe that the man who threw an election to an authoritarian will be an effective bulwark against authoritarianism.
In conclusion, I would like to offer some pitches to Lawfare:
- We need Michael Brown at FEMA more than ever
- We need Jeffrey Skilling as the head of a major corporation more than ever
- The Los Angles Rams need Jeff Fisher more than ever
- Huma Abedin needs Anthony Weiner more than ever
- The New Republic needs Stephen Glass more than ever