Jim Comey knows how to spin a yarn.
Nine years ago, I sat in a Senate hearing room and watched Comey, the former No. 2 official in George W. Bush’s Justice Department, tell a tale worthy of Tom Clancy about how White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andy Card staged a late-night ambush of Attorney General John Ashcroft, who lay in intensive care at George Washington Hospital.
Tipped off that the White House officials were trying to get Ashcroft to sign off on an eavesdropping plan that Comey had ruled legally indefensible, Comey raced to the hospital with his security detail, lights flashing, then ran to Ashcroft’s bedside.
“The door opened and in walked Mr. Gonzales, carrying an envelope, and Mr. Card,” Comey told the spellbound senators. They were prepared to manipulate the incapacitated attorney general into signing off on the eavesdropping.
But Ashcroft “lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter” – that Comey was right, he testified. “And as he laid back down, he said, ‘But that doesn’t matter, because I’m not the attorney general. There is the attorney general.’ And he pointed to me.” Gonzales and Card walked away without acknowledging Comey.
The episode elevated Comey to legal hero, a picture of rectitude who followed the rule of law above party politics and personal risk. The performance likely won him the job as FBI director in the Obama administration, even though he was a top Republican appointee.
On Tuesday morning, Comey performed a sequel, summoning the press to FBI headquarters and delivering his long-awaited decision on Hillary Clinton’s emails. It was nearly as gripping as his tale of hospital-bed contretemps. Six-foot-eight-inches tall and in a no-nonsense business suit with blue shirt and yellow tie, he began promptly at 11:01 a.m., then delivered, over the next 13 minutes, a powerful rebuke of Clinton’s conduct:
Clinton or her colleagues “were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”
A “reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position, or in the position of those … with whom she was corresponding about these matters should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.”
Fifty-two “email chains have been determined by the owning agency to contain classified information at the time they were sent or received. Eight of those chains contained information that was top secret.”
“The FBI also discovered several thousand work-related emails that were not in the group of 30,000 that were returned by Secretary Clinton.”
“Hostile actors gained access to the private commercial email accounts of people with whom Secretary Clinton was in regular contact. … It is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton’s personal email account.”
Then, and only then, did Comey sound the death knell for the Clinton email scandal.
“Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case,” he said.
“We cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts.”
As such, “we are expressing to Justice our view that no charges are appropriate.”
This wasn’t a close call: Not only wasn’t Comey recommending prosecution – he was saying that any prosecutor who did so would be unreasonable.
Much will, and has, been said about what my colleague Chris Cillizza described as Comey’s “devastating” description of Clinton’s antics. Conversely, many were saying before Comey even announced his decision that the investigation was rigged to exonerate Clinton.
But the bottom line is that a man whose reputation for integrity is as unimpeachable as it gets here in the city of Satan has said unequivocally that Clinton shouldn’t be prosecuted. And she won’t be, given that Justice Department prosecutors have no reason to overrule the FBI.
The exoneration was something like what Joe Lieberman gave Bill Clinton in 1999 on the Senate floor. The moral scold of the Democratic Party could have set off a stampede against Clinton. Lieberman called Clinton’s behavior “irresponsible and immoral,” raising “serious questions about his judgment and his respect for the high office he holds.” But then Lieberman said “the facts do not meet the high standard the founders established for conviction and removal.”
Now, Comey’s opposition to prosecution is what counts, not his words. “Only facts matter,” he said, “and the FBI found them here in an entirely apolitical and professional way.”
No reasonable person can disagree with Jim Comey.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.