James Comey helped make Donald Trump’s election possible when the then-FBI Director let a pledge he had made to congressional Republicans regarding his investigation of Hillary Clinton overwhelm his sense of proportion and propriety.
Once exposed to Mr. Trump up close, he responded to what he claimed was the President’s demand for loyalty by offering honesty, a poor substitute in the eyes of a congenital liar. When Mr. Trump got around to firing him in May 2017, less than four months after taking office, Mr. Comey sought to make amends for his original sin by acting like a whistleblower, directing confidants to leak information in the hope that it would spur the appointment of a Special Prosecutor.
It did, but Robert Mueller’s findings had their sting diluted by something neither he nor Mr. Comey could have anticipated: the President appointing as Attorney General an acolyte, William Barr, who misrepresented the facts long enough to allow Mr. Trump and his supporters to muffle the more-damning evidence that he obstructed justice on as many as 10 occasions.
Prisoner of Own Device
And late last month, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz released a report finding that Mr. Comey violated both the agency’s policies and those of the FBI by treating memos he had written following meetings at which he believed Mr. Trump made improper requests as his personal property and leaking some of their contents through an intermediary to a New York Times reporter.
In a footnote to the report, it was noted that “the FBI Director is not a covered employee under the FBI Whistleblower Protection Act,” but that Mr. Comey could have “legally disclosed the information that concerned him” to a half-dozen government entities or officials.
By instead arranging for his concerns to become the basis for the Times story that prompted the appointment of Mr. Mueller, Mr. Comey contradicted his own public statements about the need to maintain secrecy regarding ongoing investigations, including testimony less than two months before he was fired in which he told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, “We just cannot do our work well or fairly if we start talking about it while we’re doing it.”
That was how a man who, after his poor judgment late in the 2016 presidential campaign became a key factor in Mr. Trump’s victory, became convinced he was doing God’s work in exposing the extent to which the President was willing to abuse his power to obstruct an investigation and undermine American law enforcement. Yet he wound up the target of a lecture at the report’s conclusion from Mr. Horowitz that had to be particularly painful because it was hard to dispute.
The Inspector General stated, “In a country built on the rule of law, it is of utmost importance that all FBI employees adhere to Department and FBI policies, particularly when confronted by what appear to be extraordinary circumstances or compelling personal convictions. Comey had several other lawful options available to him to advocate for the appointment of a Special Counsel, which he told us was his goal in making the disclosure. What was not permitted was the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive investigative information, obtained during the course of FBI employment, in order to achieve a personally desired outcome.”
Mr. Trump responded to what he interpreted as the report’s findings by tweeting, “He should be ashamed of himself!” and described the former FBI Director as “thoroughly disgraced and excoriated.”
The report, it should be noted, was not a vindication of Mr. Trump. At no point did it accuse Mr. Comey of misrepresenting his conversations with the President, and the senior FBI officials with whom he shared accounts of his conversations with Mr. Trump shortly after they occurred did not question his veracity.
But it offered further evidence of a top law-enforcement official acting as a law unto himself, convinced that his righteousness was necessary in circumstances where those to whom he was subordinate seemed compromised by bad acts or bad judgment.
Dispatching a Nuisance
Mr. Trump, after initially citing a case for firing Mr. Comey 28 months ago put together by then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, quickly made clear, in both an NBC News interview and comments to two ranking Russian officials, that he acted in the hope that it would put to rest the investigation into whether his campaign had collaborated with agents of Russian President Vladimir Putin to influence the 2016 election.
Ironically, Mr. Rosenstein’s arguments for firing the FBI Director hinged on his conduct in two instances involving Ms. Clinton and her use of a private e-mail server while Secretary of State during President Barack Obama’s first term.
On July 5, 2016, Mr. Comey took the unusual step of announcing that Ms. Clinton would not be indicted but said that her conduct in allowing classified information to be transmitted via that server had been “extremely careless.”
Mr. Rosenstein pointed out in his memo to Mr. Trump making the case for firing that any announcements in the case should have come from then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch as the head of the Justice Department (and Mr. Comey’s boss), then added that “we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation…The [FBI] Director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial.”
By then, Mr. Comey had made clear he believed that Ms. Lynch had undermined her credibility shortly before he made his announcement when she had a half-hour meeting on a plane idling in the Phoenix airport with Bill Clinton. While she maintained their conversation consisted entirely of small talk about grandchildren and other matters that had nothing to do with the former President’s wife, Mr. Comey made clear he believed that when Mr. Clinton approached her, she should have immediately pointed out that it was inappropriate for them to be talking while that probe was proceeding.
Mr. Comey may have believed that his own background as a Republican who had held top Justice Department positions under President Bush required that he make a public statement that included a scolding of Ms. Clinton to dispel talk that the decision not to prosecute her was an election-year favor courtesy of a Democratic President who owed a debt to the Clintons for his 2012 re-election.
The Weiner Distraction
Mr. Rosenstein also upbraided Mr. Comey for interjecting himself into the campaign 11 days before Election Day to announce that e-mails had been discovered on a computer shared by Ms. Clinton’s close aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband, Anthony Weiner, that might be “pertinent” to the closed investigation. Nine days later, on Nov. 6, Mr. Comey reported that nothing had been found that was damaging to Ms. Clinton (that computer had been under review by investigators concerning Mr. Weiner’s sexting with a teenager that subsequently resulted in his going to prison).
Alluding to the longtime Justice Department practice during the closing days of presidential campaigns of not announcing details of probes that could influence voters, Mr. Rosenstein criticized Mr. Comey’s disclosure—which the then-FBI Director said he did to fulfill a promise he had made to congressional Republicans to inform them of any subsequent developments regarding Ms. Clinton’s service—when there had been nothing of substance to report. He stated that the best course would have been to quietly investigate and hold off on any announcement until there were hard facts to discuss.
Ms. Clinton, in a memoir published last year, argued that Mr. Comey announcing the reopening of the investigation had cost her the election. There was some anecdotal evidence that it had a significant impact: the polling site FiveThirtyEight found that over the week that followed, prior to Mr. Comey’s announcing that the computer search turned up nothing on Ms. Clinton, her lead in swing states declined from an average of 4.5 percent to 1.7 percent. And over the nine-day period before he offered that exoneration, 28 million ballots were cast in states that permitted early voting.
But in putting all the blame at Mr. Comey’s doorstep, Ms. Clinton gave herself a pass for her failure to react to the change in the dynamic of the election by campaigning with a sense of urgency in battleground states rather than coasting on the assurances of a youthful campaign aide that an algorithm indicated her lead was secure. During the general election campaign, she never spent a day in either Michigan or Wisconsin, two of the states that narrowly swung Mr. Trump’s way, costing her the election.
Gave Him Too Much Credit
Mr. Comey could be faulted for the abysmal judgment, from an objective vantage point, of announcing the Weiner probe to keep faith with congressional Republicans without making any mention of the fact that the FBI at that point was probing links between Mr. Trump’s campaign and the Russian government—a far-more-serious threat to the nation. But Ms. Clinton’s lethargy in the closing days of the race even as it tightened up matched him stride for stride in a demonstration of how normally smart, conscientious people could act like galloping idiots.
But then Mr. Comey one-upped her when he wrote, in his memoir “A Higher Loyalty,” that aside from his departing from protocol in the July 2016 press conference on Ms. Clinton’s e-mail server, “I am convinced that if I could do it all again, I would do the same thing, given my role and what I knew at the time.”
His justification for that statement was that he believed if he hadn’t announced the reopened investigation due to the discovery of the computer shared by Ms. Abedin and Mr. Weiner, word would have leaked out based on comments that Rudy Giuliani had made a few days earlier. The fact that Mr. Giuliani had long before completed his transition from America’s Mayor to just another Trump partisan didn’t seem to matter to Mr. Comey: he said he was convinced Ms. Clinton would win and that her presidency would be tainted if it came out that the FBI failed to disclose the new information in the closing days of the campaign.
This became another notch on his belt of hubris: a career law-enforcement official casting aside his better judgment based on his ability to forecast election results and an ability to be intimidated by Trump supporters in Congress and the media.
It could be argued that he got what he deserved when Mr. Trump, shortly after he was sworn in, asked him for his loyalty. Further agita came in mid-February, after the President shooed away then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions so he could speak privately with the FBI Director, and asked Mr. Comey if he could “see [his] way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” referring to a probe into just-fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russian officials during the campaign and a few weeks before Mr. Trump took the oath of office.
An Uneasy Feeling
The then-FBI Director said he began compiling contemporaneous memos of his conversations with Mr. Trump—something he never did when Mr. Obama was President—because he thought he was being pressured to be complicit in impropriety and didn’t trust him to be truthful about their exchanges if they became public. It’s hard to believe that the head of the FBI could have first become aware of Mr. Trump’s tendency to lie or shade the truth to his advantage after having the chance to familiarize himself with the real-estate developer’s checkered career during his nearly two years as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District in Manhattan starting in 2002.
Mr. Trump’s knack for enlisting people with better reputations than his as confederates and enablers has been one of the hallmarks of his time in the White House. Mr. Comey had enough spine to rebel against attempts to be co-opted, but in the process found himself engaging in subterfuges that took him outside the boundaries his job required him to honor.
Those transgressions are detailed in Mr. Horowitz’s analysis toward the end of the report, which addressed “whether Comey’s actions violated Department and FBI policies, or the terms of Comey’s FBI Employment Agreement. We determined that several of his actions did.”
Referring to several of the memos Mr. Comey wrote shortly after conversations with the President that concerned him, the report stated, “We conclude that the memos were official FBI records, rather than Comey’s personal documents,” which was how he justified taking them with him when he was fired and storing them in his home safe. “Accordingly, after his removal as FBI Director, Comey violated applicable policies and his Employment Agreement by failing to either surrender his copies of Memos 2, 4, 6 and 7 to the FBI or seek authorization to retain them; by releasing official FBI information and records to third parties without authorization; and by failing to immediately alert the FBI about his disclosures to his personal attorneys once he became aware in June 2017 that Memo 2 contained six words (four of which were names of foreign countries mentioned by the President) that the FBI had determined were classified at the ‘CONFIDENTIAL’ level.”
‘Violated FBI Policies’
It went on to state, referring to four top FBI officials whom he informed of the memos as he was compiling them, “None of the members of Comey’s senior leadership team agreed with or defended Comey’s view that these Memos were personal in nature…Comey’s actions with respect to the Memos violated Department and FBI policies concerning the retention, handling, and dissemination of FBI records and information, and violated the requirements of Comey’s FBI Employment Agreement…We found it particularly concerning that Comey did not tell anyone from the FBI that he had retained copies of the Memos in his personal safe at home, even when his Chief of Staff, the FBI’s Associate Deputy Director, and three SSAs came to Comey’s house on May 12, 2017 to inventory and remove all FBI property.”
Referring to his providing a copy of the memo concerning his conversations with Mr. Trump about General Flynn that he gave to longtime friend and law professor Daniel Richman to share the contents with a New York Times reporter, the report stated this “violated FBI policies and the requirements of his FBI Employment Agreement.”
Noting that Mr. Comey told the Office of Inspector General that he took that step so that Mr. Trump’s request that he not prosecute Mr. Flynn would be in “the public square,” the report stated that at the time the memo’s contents were revealed, “the FBI had an ongoing investigation of Flynn that included examining Flynn’s contacts with the Russian Ambassador. Comey said he believed disclosing the President’s statement would ‘change the game’ by creating ‘extraordinary pressure on the leadership of the Department of Justice, which [Comey did} not trust,’ to appoint a Special Counsel, who would preserve any potential tapes of his conversations with the President. Comey said his view at the time was that ‘if the world knew there might be tapes of Donald Trump asking me to drop an investigation, there would be tremendous pressure for [the Deputy Attorney General] to hand it to an independent prosecutor.’“
The net effect of this, the report said, was that “Comey placed in the public domain evidence relevant to the investigation of Flynn, and what he clearly viewed as evidence of an attempt to obstruct justice by President Trump. Rather than continuing to safeguard such evidence, Comey unilaterally and without authorization disclosed it to all.”
A Misguided ‘Love’
Asked whether that disclosure wouldn’t negatively affect the FBI just days after he had been forced to step down as its leader, Mr. Comey told the OIG he viewed the issue from a different perspective. He called it one of “ ‘incredible importance to the Nation, as a whole,’ and told us he felt that taking action was ‘something I [had] to do if I love this country…and I love the Department of Justice, and I love the FBI.’ However, Comey’s own, personal conception of what was necessary was not an appropriate basis for ignoring the policies and agreements governing the use of FBI records, especially given the other lawful and appropriate actions he could have taken to achieve his desired end.”
In other words, Mr. Comey’s conviction that Mr. Trump behaved like an outlaw who defied the rule of law could not justify his decision to do the same.
Mr. Horowitz’s report went on to explain why: “The responsibility to protect sensitive law enforcement information falls in large part to the employees of the FBI who have access to it through their daily duties. On occasion, some of these employees may disagree with decisions by prosecutors, judges, or higher ranking FBI and Department officials about the actions to take or not take in criminal and counterintelligence matters. They may even, in some situations, distrust the legitimacy of those supervisory, prosecutorial or judicial decisions. But even when these employees believe that their most strongly-held personal convictions might be served by an unauthorized disclosure, the FBI depends on them not to disclose sensitive information.”
It continued, “Former Director Comey failed to live up to that responsibility…were current or former FBI employees to follow the former Director’s example and disclose sensitive information in service of their own strongly held personal convictions, the FBI would be unable to dispatch its law enforcement duties properly.”
The irony of the events that put Mr. Comey on the receiving end of that rejoinder to his citing love of country and bureau to explain his actions was that he had stated in his memoir that it was precisely this concern about disenchanted FBI employees leaking information about the probe of Ms. Clinton’s e-mail server having gotten new life from the unrelated probe of Mr. Weiner’s behavior that prompted him to announce a reopening of that investigation. In the process, the FBI Director helped to swing the election to the man he came to regard as the worst of possible bosses.
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