After being pressed by former top Clinton political aide and Clinton Foundation donor, George Stephanopoulos, James Comey admitted on ABC News last night that he had “screwed up a couple of things.”
The former FBI director wasn’t talking about his failure to notify Donald Trump that unsubstantiated rumors paid for by his political opposition were helping fuel the creation of a special counsel. No, Comey was admitting that he had made mistakes regarding the 2016 investigation of Hillary Clinton. And no, he wasn’t begrudgingly apologizing for failing to recommend criminal charges against the candidate.
It’s an article of faith among Democrats and many Trump critics that the “Comey Letter,” sent to Congress on October 28 was reckless and unprofessional, and likely triggered the downfall of Clinton. Blaming a letter, rather than her supercilious nature, malleable positions or terrible campaign strategy, continues to feed the perception that the election process was somehow compromised. There are many reasons this is wrong, and Comey, perhaps inadvertently, explains the most obvious.
For starters, we don’t know that the letter changed the dynamics of the 2016 race. Just as most people understood the moral implications of electing Donald Trump, anyone paying attention recognized the corrupt nature of his Democratic Party opponent. Then again, if the letter reinforced those perceptions, it was well deserved.
But, the fact is, by October 28, Comey had no choice but to inform Congress that there was new evidence. It was neither an act of bravery nor partisanship. Comey had already promised congressional investigators, under oath, that he would let them know if new evidence emerged. And that’s what he did.
Not only would it have been corrupt to hide the fact that classified emails were found on the computer of the sex-addicted erstwhile husband of Hillary’s top advisor, but it almost certainly would have been leaked by local law enforcement and had a similar effect on the election (perhaps worse). Then, however, it would have rightly looked as if the FBI was attempting to cover up a potential crime for political reasons.
Yet, in essence, Democrats, the same people lecturing everyone about the sanctity of our institutions, have been arguing for more than a year that Comey should have held that evidence pertinent to an ongoing congressional investigation because it might hurt their preferred candidate’s chances.
Which brings me to the all the talk last week about Comey’s admission in “A Higher Loyalty” that poll numbers tempered his treatment of the letter, because he wanted to avoid creating the perception that she was an “illegitimate president.” (The former FBI head doesn’t seem exceptionally troubled about creating this perception now.) This contention, lathered in Comeyisms, is hardly clear cut. Ultimately, in fact, Comey sanctimoniously writes, that “[o]ther than mistakes in the way I presented myself in the July 5 public statements in front of the television cameras,” he would not have done any differently.
This admission is far more telling than the one making all the news. While Comey doesn’t regret the letter — a letter, incidentally, careful worded to avoid implicating Hillary — he regrets the way he laid out the persuasive case that Clinton and her staff had broken the law, even though he refused to recommend the Justice Department hold them accountable.
In the ABC News interview, Comey frames Hillary’s handling of classified information as merely “sloppy” — not “even extreme sloppiness” or “even extremely careless” was illegal, he claims. But this was not the entirety of Comey’s framing of the case in July of 2016, when he stated that although “there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.” Carelessness was not the reason to avoid recommending charges, the inability to prove criminal intent was. (Which would prove to be difficult to find, considering Comey showered immunity deals on anyone who could have implicated Clinton.)
It was Comey’s July 5 statement — as well as his congressional testimony — that sunk him. After all, the idea that a former senator and secretary of state’s secret server (almost surely set up to circumvent transparency) was a mere case of sloppiness is implausible. The idea that she would, for years, send unsecured classified documents through that server — according to Comey, Clinton transmitted 110 emails containing clearly marked classified information, 36 of them contained secret information, 8 chains contained “top secret” information — because of carelessness is absurd. The idea that Clinton and her staff would then attempt to destroy all the evidence related to that server — “cleaned their devices in such a way as to preclude complete forensic recovery,” as Comey put it — is plain silly.
Like many of us, Comey assumed, as he admits in his book, that Hillary was going to win. It is far more plausible that the FBI director believed he was insulating the future president from criminal charges, as well as preserving his career and reputation by being tough on her.
It is also farfetched that a highly partisan Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who had never truly recused herself from the case, was going to prosecute her party’s nominee in the middle of an election. There was certainly no way the partisan attorney general was going to prosecute the person most people assumed was going to be the next president of the United States. Comey did the best he could navigating these turbulent political waters. And what’s become clear is that rather than engaging in the pursuit of justice or attempting to uphold the values of his institution, Comey was engaging in the age-old Washington pursuit of self-preservation.