Editorials

Comey’s blunder wreaks havoc, politicizes FBI

FBI Director James Comey is sworn at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington on Thursday, July 7, 2016. Comey appeared before the committee to explain his finding that no reasonable prosecutor would bring a criminal case against Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
FBI Director James Comey is sworn at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington on Thursday, July 7, 2016. Comey appeared before the committee to explain his finding that no reasonable prosecutor would bring a criminal case against Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Bloomberg News

In wreaking more havoc on this contentious presidential campaign, FBI Director James Comey’s weak decision to announce an investigation – or whatever it is – related to Hillary Clinton’s emails has made clear how deeply politicized the FBI has become under his unsteady leadership.

Comey needs to explain what he thinks the FBI has, or doesn’t have, in its possession. And he needs to do it now, before the Nov. 8 election.

Once that’s done, Comey should ask himself fundamental questions: Was this genuinely necessary? Or will history show that it was more about bending to Republican partisans bent on keeping another Democrat out of the White House? With his reputation in tatters, he needs to ask himself whether his actions befit one of the most important jobs in the free world.

Comey took the unprecedented step in July of publicly excoriating a presidential candidate for sloppily handling email. At the time, he promised to keep Congress informed about any further developments. That apparently is why he felt obliged to write Friday’s letter, lest he be criticized if word of the inquiry leaked.

But Comey must have known that his vague wording might be subject to misinterpretation and exploitation. Donald Trump, trailing in the polls, seized on it instantly and bloviated about Clinton’s transgression – whatever it might be.

It would be one thing if Comey had discovered information so explosive that it would be irresponsible not to announce it. But all he knows is that Clinton confidante Huma Abedin received emails that were on a computer she shared with Anthony Weiner, her now-estranged husband.

Apparently, FBI agents found the emails as they investigated Weiner’s perverse sexting. It could be that Abedin and perhaps Clinton share blame for careless handling of official emails during Clinton’s time as secretary of state. But nothing is clear, including whether any Abedin-Weiner emails are classified.

By informing the Republican-controlled Congress of the development, Comey changed the conversation in the final week of the campaign. His action could tilt the presidential election and almost certainly will have an impact on U.S. Senate and congressional races.

Federal officials regularly receive refreshers on the Hatch Act, the 1939 law that bars them from using their authority to influence an election. Comey evidently missed that memo.

The FBI director has shown he cares deeply about his hide. Unfortunately, more is at stake here, including whether democracy will function in increasingly polarized times.

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