James Comey is about to be ubiquitous. His book will be published next week, and parts may leak this week. Starting Sunday, he will begin an epic publicity tour, including interviews with Stephen Colbert, David Remnick, Rachel Maddow, Mike Allen, George Stephanopoulos and “The View.”
All of which will raise the question: What, ultimately, are we supposed to make of Comey?
He may be the most significant supporting player of the Trump era, and his reputation has whipsawed over the last two years. He’s spent time as a villain, a savior and some bizarre combination of the two, depending on your political views.
I think that the harshest criticisms of Comey have been unfair all along. He has never been a partisan, for either side. Over a long career at the Justice Department, he was driven by its best ideals: upholding the rule of law without fear or favor. His strengths allowed him to resist political pressure from more than one president of the United States.
Yet anybody who’s read Greek tragedy knows that strengths can turn into weaknesses when a person becomes too confident in those strengths. And that’s the key to understanding the very complex story of James Comey.
Long before he was a household name, Comey was a revered figure within legal circles. His rise was fairly typical: first a federal judge’s clerk, then a prosecutor, eventually a political appointee. But he was more charismatic than most bureaucrats – 6 feet 8 inches tall, with an easy wit and refreshing informality. People loved working for him.
If you read his 2005 goodbye speech to the Justice Department, when he was stepping down as George W. Bush’s deputy attorney general, you can understand why. It’s funny, displaying the gifts of a storyteller. It includes an extended tribute to the department’s rank and file, like “secretaries, document clerks, custodians and support people who never get thanked enough.” He insists on “the exact same amount of human dignity and respect” for “every human being in this organization,” and he quotes 18th-century preacher John Wesley: “Do all the good that you can.”
Above all, though, the speech is a celebration of the department’s mission. Many Justice Department officials, from both parties, have long believed that they should be more independent and less political than other Cabinet departments. Comey was known as an evangelist of this view. To be a Justice Department employee, he said in his goodbye, is to be “committed to getting it right, and to doing the right thing, whatever the price.”
It wasn’t just an act, either. Comey sometimes chided young prosecutors who had never lost a case, accusing them of caring more about their win-loss record than justice. He told them they were members of the Chicken Excrement Club (or something like that). Most famously, in 2004, he stood up to Bush and Dick Cheney over a dubious surveillance program.
But as real as Comey’s independence and integrity were, they also became part of a persona that he cultivated and relished.
The reason that people knew about his defiance of Bush and Cheney is that Comey himself told Congress, at a stage-managed 2007 hearing. As a former Justice official later told journalist Garrett Graff, “Jim Comey always has to be positioned oppositional to those in power.”
With this background, you can understand – though not excuse – Comey’s great mistake. He was the FBI director overseeing the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. He and his team decided that she had not done anything that warranted criminal charges. And he knew that Republicans would blast him as a coward who was trying to curry favor with the likely future president.
So he decided to go public with his explanation for not charging Clinton and to criticize her harshly. He then doubled down, releasing a public update on the investigation 11 days before the election, even as other Justice officials urged him not to. Department policy dictates that investigators aren’t supposed to talk publicly about why they are not bringing charges. They especially don’t do so when they could affect an election.
Comey, however, decided that he knew better than everyone else. He was the righteous Jim Comey, after all. He was going to speak truth to power. He was also, not incidentally, going to protect his own fearless image. He developed a series of rationales, suggesting that he really had no choice. They remain unpersuasive. When doing the right thing meant staying quiet and taking some lumps, Comey chose not to.
His tragic mistake matters because of the giant consequences for the country. He helped elect the most dangerous, unfit American president of our lifetimes. No matter how brave Comey has since been, no matter how honorable his full career, he can never undo that damage.
As he takes over the spotlight again, I’ll be thinking about the human lessons as well the political ones. Comey has greater strengths than most people. But for all of us, there is a fine line between strength and hubris.