WASHINGTON – The evidence suggests that FBI Director James Comey is a decent man. The evidence also suggests that he has been intimidated by pressure from Republicans in Congress whose interest is not in justice but in destroying Hillary Clinton.
On Friday, a whipsawed Comey gave in. Breaking with FBI precedent and Justice Department practice, he weighed in on one side of a presidential campaign.
I don’t believe this was his intention. But his vaguely worded letter to Congress announcing that the FBI was examining emails on a computer used by Clinton aide Huma Abedin accomplished the central goals of the right-wing critics Comey has been trying to get off his back.
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Especially disturbing is that some of those critics are inside the FBI. As The Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz reported on Saturday, “a largely conservative investigative corps” in the bureau was “complaining privately that Comey should have tried harder to make a case” against Clinton.
For a major law-enforcement institution to be so politicized and biased against one party would be a genuine scandal. If Comey acted in part out of fear that his agents would leak against him, it would reflect profound dysfunction within the FBI.
One measure of the damage Comey has done to his reputation is the praise Donald Trump showered upon him after months of trashing the director for not recommending Clinton’s indictment. Winning favor from a politician who has described how he would use the government’s instruments to punish his enemies is not something a professional like Comey will ever be proud of.
Far from cowering, Clinton and her campaign went on the offensive, demanding more clarity from the FBI director. In light of reports that no one in the bureau has even viewed the messages, Tim Kaine, Clinton’s vice presidential running mate, said on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday: “If he hasn’t seen the emails, they need to make that plain.” Clinton called Comey’s intervention “unprecedented and deeply troubling.” Indeed.
Comey’s murky letter opened the way for Trump to level wild charges against Clinton and for congressional Republicans to engage in their own initiatives to twist the truth.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chair of the Oversight Committee, quickly tweeted news of Comey’s letter Friday and stated: “Case reopened.”
This is not what Comey said (and technically the Clinton case was never closed). But many in the media bought Chaffetz’s hype, especially in early accounts. That’s what happens when an FBI director hands an explosive but muddled letter to a Republican-led Congress.
In fact, Chaffetz had already made clear that if Clinton wins, the GOP’s top priority will be to keep the Clinton investigative machine rolling.
“It’s a target-rich environment,” Chaffetz cheerfully told The Washington Post’s David Weigel last week. “Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain’t good.”
And on ABC Sunday, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chair of the Judiciary Committee, gave the Republicans’ game away when he spoke of Clinton’s “potential impeachment” before correcting himself. Note to reader: Inauguration Day isn’t until January 20, 2017.
These are the people Comey has been trying to mollify ever since he decided that there was no way the evidence justified prosecuting Clinton. His first act of appeasement was his July news conference in which he announced his decision but also criticized Clinton and her aides for being “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”
Comey may have thought he had arrived at the Solomonic middle ground that would make everyone happy. But as Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department Official wrote in The Washington Post, when “the government decides it will not submit its assertions to … rigorous scrutiny by bringing charges, it has the responsibility to not besmirch someone’s reputation by lobbing accusations publicly instead.”
Comey had entered the political fray, and there was no turning back – especially since his Republican tormentors would not be satisfied until Clinton was brought down. As The Post editorialized, Comey had already gone “too far” in “providing raw FBI material to Congress.” He allowed himself to be sucked into a dangerous and dysfunctional relationship with one political party that set him on the hazardous course to Friday’s letter.
History shows that appeasing bullies never works. Maybe Comey has learned this lesson and will try to make amends in coming days.
As for the voters, my hope is that they reject this perversion of justice all the way down the ballot.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.