This is a point that the president’s critics should take seriously. Even if one thinks that the FBI served the public interest by leaking in this specific case, the principle that our unelected law-enforcement agencies should not publicize the details of ongoing investigations is one worth protecting. For now, the FBI’s leaks are merely alerting the public to possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence agencies — and, thereby, making it more politically difficult for the president to quash existing inquiries into that matter.
But how else might the FBI use its power to selectively reveal investigatory information in the future? It is not impossible to imagine the agency actually swinging an election over baseless insinuations, by disclosing bits of information in a misleading way.
Even if it hadn’t swung the election, Comey’s grossly irresponsible and unethical actions served to demonstrate the substantive value of the rules and norms he violated. His selective interventions into the election undermined American democracy with horrible results. But obliterating the norms is also going to mean more actions by factions within the FBI to undermine elected officials. It would be much better if the old norms had held, even now that interventions are more likely to hurt Trump than help him. But expecting unilateral disarmament is unrealistic, so once the norms go it’s generally impossible to restore them. The damage Comey inflicted on American democracy will have repressions that extend well beyond the bad outcomes of the Trump administration.