WASHINGTON – When FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress in July about his recommendation not to prosecute Hillary Clinton, he mentioned at least 10 times how important it was that he be transparent.
“What I decided to do was offer transparency to the American people,” he said, “because I thought it was very, very important for their confidence in the system of justice, and within that their confidence in the FBI. I was very concerned that if I didn’t show that transparency, that in that lack of transparency people would say, ‘What is going on here? Something seems squirrelly here.’”
Now, in the final days of the presidential election, Comey has shocked the nation by announcing that he is reopening the investigation of Clinton – and he is offering no transparency at all about what is going on here. And something indeed seems squirrelly.
I’ve long believed in Comey’s integrity. But if he doesn’t step forward and explain his October Surprise, he may inadvertently wind up interfering in the political process – perhaps even reversing the outcome of a presidential election – in a way that would have made J. Edgar Hoover gape.
We now know that Comey defied warnings by the Justice Department that he was violating longstanding policy against interfering in elections. But it’s just as clear that Comey’s actions – tarring Clinton with a new hint of scandal while providing no details that might allow Clinton to defend herself – violate his own standards of transparency that he preached a few months ago.
If he has the goods on Clinton, let’s hear them. If he doesn’t, as his admission that “we don’t know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails” suggests, he must make clear that this is just a pro forma notice he sent to Congress. But what he’s doing is essentially proposing a political death sentence for Clinton without providing the charges. The weight of Comey’s thumb on the scale is greater now than it was in July, when there was still time to absorb the information.
Some Democratic partisans suspect this is a dirty trick by a man who was the No. 2 official in George W. Bush’s Justice Department. It could make people feel the election is being rigged after all – in Donald Trump’s favor. I don’t believe that. As I wrote in July, Comey’s “reputation for integrity is as unimpeachable as it gets.” There’s nothing about Comey that suggests he would like to install Trump in the White House; his passion for the rule of law clashes with Trump’s threats to use the Justice Department to go after his political opponents.
But why would a man of integrity, at a time when the nation is already inflamed, add gasoline by insinuating wrongdoing by the presidential front-runner even though he admits he can’t “yet assess whether or not this material may be significant”? And give Clinton no chance of exonerating herself by saying “I cannot predict” how long it will take to assess the material?
The most benign, and likely, explanation is CYA: Comey wanted to inoculate himself against future allegations from Republican lawmakers that he sat on relevant information before the election. If so, self-preservation trumped his professed love of transparency.
Back in July, when he made his recommendation not to prosecute, he read a lengthy public statement explaining that “I am going to include more detail about our process than I ordinarily would, because I think the American people deserve those details in a case of intense public interest.”
Then he testified to Congress about being “a big fan of transparency” and a “huge fan of transparency” because “transparency matters tremendously” and “that’s what makes our democracy great.” Said Comey: “Transparency is the absolute best thing for me and for democracy.”
Now Comey has decided opacity is better for him, sending a vague letter to Congress while leaving it to anonymous officials to attempt to explain his reasoning to the public, via the press. Does he suppose that the American people no longer “deserve those details in a case of intense public interest”? In his brief words written to FBI employees Friday, Comey acknowledged there was a “significant risk of being misunderstood.” But the way to avoid being misunderstood is to explain himself publicly and fully, the way he did in July.
By falling short of his own standards of transparency, Comey is harming both election integrity and his well-deserved personal integrity. He needs to explain himself if he hopes to salvage either.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.