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Working the Refs Works



I’ll have more on one obvious takeaway from the big Times Comey piece — the remarkable refusal of the Paper of Record to take any responsibility for the effect that the Comey letter had on the race — later. But Tomasky makes another critical point about how the major players were all reacting to Republican pressure:

The big takeaway may be that the reason everything happened the way it did is that everyone involved, from Comey up to President Obama, assumed Hillary Clinton was going to win. Their behavior was guided by that assumption.

In Comey’s case, he thought maybe he was establishing his independence toward the person who was going to be his next boss. In Obama’s case, it was maybe more that he didn’t want to be seen as interfering in an election and felt he didn’t need to because Hillary was going to win anyway.

All that strikes me as true. But here’s another takeaway for you, and I haven’t seen anyone make this point, and it’s an important one: If the Times is to be believed—and stories like this one, based on 30 interviews, might get some facts wrong but are generally accurate in the gist of what they convey—Comey was often motivated by fear. Fear of how a certain group would react.

We see in three instances that he feared the wrath of the Republicans. One, if he didn’t break precedent and speak harshly of Clinton while officially exonerating her last summer. So he spoke harshly. Two, if he didn’t announce in late October that the investigation was reopened. So he announced the investigation (which, as we learned too late, again amounted to nothing) was reopened.

And three, if the Republicans in Congress decided post-election to include him and the bureau in its inevitable Clinton witch hunts. So he beat them to the witch hunt, and finally said she was clear just as she drowned. The article doesn’t say this, but surely Comey also feared GOP wrath if he did confirm before the election that Donald Trump was under investigation too, which he finally confirmed last month.


So fear of political fallout seems to have motivated almost everything he did. Kevin Drum made this point over the weekend.

But Drum didn’t emphasize what is to me the most telling thing, which is that there is one group Comey appears not to have feared at all: Democrats.

There’s a lot in the article about the thinking that went into Comey’s statement to the media explaining why Clinton would not be charged. He called her behavior “extremely careless,” you’ll recall, and spent about 15 teeing up a federal case before announcing that there wouldn’t be one.

The Times story says that Comey’s criticism of Clinton was “intended to insulate the FBI from criticism that it was too lenient toward a Democrat.” It also notes that “by scolding Mrs. Clinton, was speaking not only to voters but to his own agents.”

But nowhere does the article say that Comey feared how Democrats would react if he raked Clinton over the rhetorical coals without bringing charges. Of course he didn’t! Democrats don’t scare anybody.

As I recall things, some Democrats expressed some outrage, but it was scattered, nothing like what the Republicans would have done had the shoe been on the other foot.

And what is true of Comey is also true of Dean Baquet. Republicans attack the media and people who opposed their interests no matter what; Democrats are  often timorous about criticizing both the press and people like Comey even when it’s eminently justified. The incentives this creates are predictable and, in 2016, disastrous.

The idea that Democrats shouldn’t criticize the media’s awful coverage of the 2016 election or Comey’s indefensible election tampering even though doing so is both politically useful and clearly correct on the merits because it would interfere with discussions of how someone who will never run for president again sucks is, in other words, absolutely insane.

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