So now it can be told: Bill Clinton cost his wife the presidency.
Almost three hours into a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey shed new light on his decision to go public about his agency’s investigations into Hillary Clinton’s emails, first in July 2016 and again, with devastating effect, in late October, 11 days before the election.
The specific reason he cited: Bill Clinton’s decision to board Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s plane in late June, when their planes were both on a tarmac in Phoenix. “The capper was – and I’m not picking on Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who I like very much – but her meeting with President Clinton on that airplane was the capper for me,” Comey said. Comey decided to “step away” and announce, without consulting the Justice Department, that Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be charged.
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In Comey’s telling, this public announcement in turn required Comey to speak up again in October, when more emails were found. “Having done that (the public announcement) and then having testified repeatedly under oath that we’re done,” he said, “it would be a disastrous, catastrophic concealment” not to go public on Oct. 28 with the newly discovered emails.
It’s a tragic chain of events: If Bill Clinton hadn’t boarded that plane in June, Comey might not have spoken out in July, which means he wouldn’t have felt compelled to speak up again in October, which means Hillary Clinton would have won the election in November.
These were Comey’s fullest comments to date on his indefensible decision to announce on the eve of the election that he was reopening the investigation into Clinton, almost certainly handing the election to Donald Trump. It wasn’t a compelling explanation, but, knowing the self-righteousness and independence that drives the FBI director, it seemed genuine. He made a disastrous decision but for reasons that weren’t entirely wrong: Bill Clinton’s clumsiness created a vacuum of credibility, and Comey, self-appointed guardian of the justice system, stepped in to fill the void.
Comey said he was physically ill over his role in the election, which Trump and Hillary Clinton are again arguing about this week. “Look, this is terrible,” he told the senators. “It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election.”
If Comey is mildly nauseated by the thought that he had “some impact,” he should have his face over the toilet bowl when he considers that he handed Trump the presidency. Certainly, there were many factors behind Clinton’s loss. But in an election this close there can be no doubt that Comey’s action was enough to swing the outcome.
Comey’s performance Wednesday was maddening at times. He was unfailingly pious. “Lordy this has been painful,” he pleaded. “But I think I have done the right thing at each turn. … The honest answer – I don’t mean to sound arrogant – is I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”
And Comey was full of inconsistencies when he tried to explain why he spoke out about Clinton’s case during the campaign yet remained adamantly silent about the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s Russia ties. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, top Democrat on the panel, shook her head in disbelief when Comey maintained that “I didn’t make a public announcement” on Oct. 28 that he was reopening the Clinton investigation. “I sent a private letter” to Congress, he said – as if it wouldn’t immediately leak.
Comey proclaimed that “I’ve lived my entire career by the tradition that if you can possibly avoid it, you avoid any action in the run-up to an election that might have an impact.” Yet he acknowledged an aide told him “what you’re about to do may help elect Donald Trump president,” and Comey said he considered “not for a moment” that huge impact.
The director asserted that he had only “two doors” on Oct. 28 – speak or “conceal.” Thus did he ignore the obvious third option: Let his agents find out whether there was anything worthwhile in the new batch of emails (there wasn’t) before throwing the election into chaos.
But there was something that rang true in Comey’s account. Dating back to his showdown at John Ashcroft’s hospital bed during the Bush administration, he has been the incorruptible exemplar of justice. “I have lived my whole life caring about the credibility and the integrity of the criminal-justice process,” he proclaimed Wednesday.
His time as FBI director, a position independent by design, no doubt reinforced his instincts. And after Bill Clinton climbed onto Lynch’s plane last year, Comey told the senators, he decided “the best chance of the American people believing in the system” was for him to go public.
Comey’s intervention ultimately did the justice system worse harm. But at least we now know why he did it.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.