James Comey’s October surprise has turned into his November catastrophe. Having roiled the presidential campaign repeatedly, the FBI director has wrecked his reputation, damaged the bureau, and lent credence to the notion perpetrated by Donald Trump that the system is rigged.
Comey supposedly prides himself on his nonpartisanship. Certainly, the FBI is supposed to be apolitical. Unfortunately, some agents are anything but and Comey is showing that he is unable to control them, and unable to resist the Beltway spotlight.
Comey started down this uncharted path by holding an unprecedented press conference in July to excoriate Hillary Clinton while announcing that he – not U.S. Justice Department prosecutors or a grand jury – had concluded she committed no crime in her mishandling of emails during her secretary of state tenure.
After telling Congress the investigation was concluded, Comey learned agents found Clinton emails on disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s computer. His decision to send Congress an update was a bombshell. On Sunday, finding nothing new in the trove, he sent a new letter to Congress, clearing Clinton again.
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But polls show her campaign was damaged. And worse, he and others suggested that some FBI agents might have been leaking in ways intended to influence the presidential election. That recalls the bad days of J. Edgar Hoover when leaks were aimed at destroying dissidents, and it ought to alarm all Americans, no matter their political persuasion.
Last month, Rudolph Giuliani, Trump’s most prominent surrogate, claimed to have spoken to “active” FBI agents about a Clinton investigation. If that’s true, those agents are violating bureau policy, if not the law.
Last week, Fox New host Bret Baier reported an FBI “source” told him of a coming indictment related to the Clinton Foundation. After other reporters shot down his bogus story, Baier recanted in a half-baked correction. The Sacramento Bee editorial board would never want to discourage sources from talking with reporters. But if FBI agents spoke to Baier and Giuliani about investigations, it raises legal issues. The Hatch Act makes it a crime for civil servants to try to influence the outcome of elections.
The next president likely will not fire Comey, whose 10-year term expires in 2023. But Congress should haul him to Capitol Hill to explain his questionable judgment. Comey needs to control himself and his agents, or hand the reins over to someone who is up to the job.