If Former FBI Director James Comey had played no role in the 2016 election—if he had withheld comment on Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and all other unindicted investigative subjects, as Justice Department rules dictate he should have—Clinton probably would be president today.
But imagine for a moment that Comey said nothing two years ago, and Trump had won anyhow, wth his campaign still under an undisclosed investigation. Everything we know about Trump and Comey suggests the events of 2017 would have played out much as they did in real life. Trump would have tried to compromise the FBI director in the same Nixonian way, Comey would have declined to help Trump obstruct justice, Trump would have fired him, and Comey would have written a book about it.
The difference is that book wouldn’t have been received with the serious misgivings many liberals have about A Higher Loyalty, which just hit the shelves here in our nightmarish reality. Comey’s actual book recounts not just Trump’s efforts to corrupt him and the broader government, but seeks to justify the decisions he made in 2016, which arguably brought about Trump’s presidency, his own firing, and the right’s ongoing efforts to undermine public faith in the FBI’s institutional neutrality.
Comey’s brutal critique of Trump’s conduct in office—his routine abuses of power—is a vital service. Under slightly different circumstances it would be a unifying one, too. Instead, Comey has been received among Trump’s critics with both appreciation and bewilderment. How can he present himself as an arbiter of faithful leadership and not cop to his errors more fully? As a family member of mine messaged me incredulously this week, “it’s so weird and discordant for Comey to seem so smart and be so articulate but to have such terrible judgment. And I really believe he believes what he is saying.”
This is not a universal sentiment within the broad Trump opposition. Or rather, many of those who share misgivings about the way Comey concluded, then unconcluded, then reconcluded the Clinton email investigation also think it’s a mistake for liberals to dissolve back into election-related recriminations. Comey’s chilling assessment of the dangers Trump poses in office should serve as a singular rallying point.
“Let me get this straight: Instead of using an opportunity to absolutely hammer Trump for his highly unethical and potentially criminal conduct as described by the former FBI Director, Dems want to relitigate 2016 election decisions?” writes Lawfare’s executive editor, Susan Hennessey. “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—anyone can do to change the decisions that preceded the election. Agree, disagree, whatever. It doesn’t matter. We can fight about it until the damn cows come home or we can focus on the President’s ongoing assault on the rule of law.”
Vox’s Matthew Yglesias says, “This is not the time for complaining about Comey and the emails.”
“[T]o react to Comey’s charges against Trump with a comprehensive assessment of his entire career is to miss the point,” he adds. “James Comey is a critical figure of our time not because of any particular decision, right or wrong, that he made during his tenure in government. He’s important because he exemplifies values—most of all, the pursuit of institutional independence and autonomy—whose presence among career officials safeguards the United States against the threat of systemic corruption.”
If revisiting Comey’s conduct in 2016 served the sole purpose of airing grievances, this critique would be persuasive. But Comey’s inadequate grappling with his own failures is a real problem. To retrospectively absolve Comey risks not just overlooking his errors of judgment, but inviting complacency about the poisoned political milieu that drove Comey to the decisions he made. Comey has an opportunity in theory to focus public attention on a systemic threat to neutral authority and rule of law that Trump merely exploited. Instead, by assuming a defensive posture, he is normalizing that threat.
In a somewhat crude sense, there’s probably no harm in subjecting Comey’s conduct in 2016 to scrutiny now. The experience of 2017 through today suggests there’s plenty of room in the anti-Trump universe for both infighting and fighting Trump. Moreover, the idea that Trump’s opponents can either unite behind Comey, or waste that opportunity by second guessing him, is a false choice. Comey himself seemingly understands this, or he wouldn’t have written at length about his decisions, and invited critics to engage him on them.
But there is real, deep value in understanding why Comey made the mistakes he made so that future leaders don’t fall into the same trap he did.
Buried in the transcript of Comey’s interview with NPR is an exchange that exposes the analytical error underlying Comey’s decision to make multiple, extraordinary intrusions into the 2016 election.
Comey acknowledges in his book that he was motivated to speak publicly about the Clinton investigation in large part because conservatives (including Trump and other leading Republicans) had primed much of the public to believe President Obama’s Justice Department would corruptly protect Clinton from legal accountability.
“[Y]ou talk about this meeting between the Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Clinton,” says NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “And you say you had no thought that there was any conspiracy there, but after it became a big thing on cable TV, it changed your mind. Were you actually being influenced by cable TV pundits in what you decided to do?”
Comey responds: “[E]ven if there weren’t wings in our politics, which there always have been, but even if there wasn’t that punditry, I think it would be an intense interest in knowing that this had been done in an honest, competent, independent way.”
NPR’s Carrie Johnson pressed Comey on this point, asking “[W]as that your job? Was it your job to worry about those things?”
“I think so,” Comey responded. “As the director of the FBI I think my job is to worry about how—despite what your mother told you about not caring what other people think—as the director of the FBI, the public trust is all you have in that institution. And so yes, worrying about that had to be part of the job description of the Department of Justice—I mean, of the leader of the FBI.”
This would be a powerful argument in a political climate where both major ideological factions felt equally committed to a kind of factual politics. That Comey describes the conspiracy theories Republicans propounded about the email investigation as “politics [as] there always have been,” suggests he suffers from a continued blindness to asymmetries in American political life that allowed him to be bamboozled.
Comey reveals here, as the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent noted, that he left the institutions of justice vulnerable to bad faith actors angling to manipulate him. Like many journalists, Comey succumbed to a false assumption of balance—that all politics is just politics. He couldn’t and can’t grapple with the idea that one party is less beholden to empiricism and truth than the other, and uses that leeway to undermine neutral institutions unless those institutions do the bidding of the GOP.
Like Trump now, Republicans weren’t interested in the fair administration of justice when they suggested the Clinton email investigation might be rigged. At an extreme, their goal is to destroy the notion of law enforcement as a neutral mediating institution and turn it into an instrument of partisan power. In 2016, this manifested in a party-wide campaign to intimidate Comey and others into prosecuting the leader of the opposition whether she was guilty of a crime or not. Bring charges against Clinton, they implicitly threatened, or we will convince our supporters that the FBI, like the media and the scientific community, is just another biased and compromised liberal institution.
They made good on that threat. And they continue to deploy bad faith and propaganda to intimidate federal law enforcement officials into corrupting rule of law. Republicans have successfully manipulated the Justice Department into taking another look at multiple, fabricated Clinton scandals. At Trump’s behest, Attorney General Jeff Sessions intervened in the DOJ’s disciplinary process to fire the deputy director of the FBI, a day before his pension fully vested, to satisfy Trump’s grudge against a witness to his obstruction of justice. The GOP has used Congress’ oversight to conduct show trials, aimed at convincing Republican voters that the DOJ is a hub of anti-Trump politics, and have been rewarded for it with access to the government’s evidence in the Russia investigation.
If Comey accommodated this kind of bad faith ref-working, it’s no surprise that less steel-spined officials are doing the same thing, and will continue face the same thuggish tactics, because Republicans have learned that the tactics work. Trump would like to destroy the rule of law in America by fiat, but with that option foreclosed for now, he has made significant progress toward that goal in increments, largely through the power of propaganda.
Comey can’t do anything to change these incentives directly, but if he were to acknowledge his errors in judgment—and, more importantly, grapple with why he made them—he could do something really valuable: warn public servants and the rest of us not to make the same mistakes. Don’t allow bad faith critics seeking to destroy neutral authority to lead you by the nose. Learn how to recognize it, identify it for what it is, and resist it, or risk compromising yourself. The other way lies ruin. A world in which we accept that Comey made the best decisions he could in a difficult but extraordinary environment is a world in which Trump and the GOP keep gnawing and gnawing at the underpinnings of the rule of law until they snap.