Republicans summoned FBI Director James Comey to Capitol Hill on Thursday to question him about his determination that Hillary Clinton did not break the law with her use of a private email server. They termed it an “emergency” hearing, and their questions were correspondingly urgent.
“Have you seen the Broadway production ‘Hamilton’?” Rep. John Mica of Florida, the most senior Republican on the House Oversight Committee, asked Comey.
The witness looked puzzled at the line of questioning: Was Mica going to challenge him to a duel?
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“Not yet,” Comey replied.
Mica explained that “Hamilton” had won the Tony for best choreography, which, in the lawmaker’s fertile mind, makes the musical just like Comey’s statement recommending no prosecution of Clinton: A case of “choreography,” he alleged, between President Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Comey.
Mica displayed a “Clinton Timeline,” with photos, to tie his conspiracy together. “There is something fishy about this,” Mica announced, between clicks of his tongue. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but there are a lot of questions on how this came down.”
Comey, who otherwise endured nearly five hours of questioning with patience and calm, denounced the “insinuation” Mica had made and told him what he should tell his constituents: “Look me in the eye and listen to what I’m about to say,” the FBI chief said. “I did not coordinate that (statement) with anyone. The White House, the Department of Justice, nobody outside the FBI family had any idea what I was about to say. I say that under oath. I stand by that. There was no coordination, no.”
Republicans didn’t just disagree with Comey’s decision, or demand new investigations, which is their right. They alleged that the justice system is rigged and corrupt. This doesn’t hurt Comey or even Clinton as much as it undermines a building block of civilized society: the rule of law.
Until now, nobody questioned the probity of Comey, a longtime prosecutor and former No. 2 official in George W. Bush’s Justice Department. House Speaker Paul Ryan had said “his integrity is unequaled.” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the oversight panel, had said he and his Republican colleagues would “probably” accept his recommendation because “in all of government, he is a man of integrity and honesty.”
But now Ryan is saying Clinton got preferential treatment, Chaffetz says Comey made a “political calculation,” and presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump alleges the attorney general was bribed.
Republicans could simply accept the political gift Comey presented them. He said Thursday that Clinton met the very “definition of negligent” in her mishandling of classified information. And he portrayed her as a Luddite who lacks basic familiarity with the treatment of classified material and didn’t even have a computer in her office.
They could also use the occasion to fix a system that classifies too much but still doesn’t protect the most important secrets. Clinton is hardly the only one to mishandle government secrets. In the same hearing room four years ago, Chaffetz publicly exposed the existence of a CIA facility in Benghazi. The Obama administration has repeatedly complained that members of the committee have divulged the names of U.S. government informants, airport-security details and information from a sealed wiretap warrant.
Instead, several Republicans attempted to impugn the character of a model public servant. “Obviously, this is very suspicious, just the optics of it all,” charged Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., tying Comey’s announcement to “Secretary Clinton is flying around in Air Force One with the president.” Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., said an “inside the Beltway mentality” was keeping Comey from bringing charges.
Comey, who delivered his opening statement and fielded questions without notes, calmly explained that to prosecute Clinton, the government would have to rely on a 1917 statute of dubious constitutionality that has only been used once in 99 years.
Comey said that his “all-star” team of 15 to 20 people who “didn’t give a hoot about politics” was unanimous after their year-long probe that Clinton shouldn’t be charged. He said they couldn’t prove that she knew she was receiving classified information or retaining it on her server.
And, because the facts in the case wouldn’t be used to prosecute a “John Doe,” he said, trying to prosecute Clinton with these facts would be “celebrity-hunting.”
That, of course, is what Republicans wanted Comey to do. Instead, he showed integrity. “In my experience, which is three decades, no reasonable prosecutor would bring this case,” he said. “I know that frustrates people, but that’s the way the law is.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.