Every time he’s forced to answer questions about his extraordinary decision to inject himself into the 2016 presidential campaign a mere 11 days before the election, FBI Director James Comey digs himself deeper and deeper into the hole of his own incompetence and weakness.
Let’s not forget that he made the announcement before the bureau had even read the emails, and once it did, it discovered there was nothing there to be concerned about. But here’s what we learn today:
FBI Director James B. Comey overstated key findings involving the Hillary Clinton email investigation during testimony to Congress last week, according to people close to the inquiry.In defending the probe, Comey offered seemingly new details to underscore the seriousness of the situation FBI agents faced last fall when they discovered thousands of Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s emails on the computer of her husband, Anthony Weiner.“Somehow, her emails were being forwarded to Anthony Weiner, including classified information,” Comey said, adding later, “His then-spouse Huma Abedin appears to have had a regular practice of forwarding emails to him for him I think to print out for her so she could then deliver them to the secretary of state.”At another point in the testimony, Comey said Abedin “forwarded hundreds and thousands of emails, some of which contain classified information.’’Neither of those statements is accurate, said people close to the investigation. The inquiry found that Abedin did occasionally forward emails to her husband for printing, but it was a far smaller number than Comey described, and it wasn’t a “regular practice,” these people said. None of the forwarded emails were marked classified, but a small number — a handful, one person said — contained information that was later judged to contain classified information, these people said.
To be clear, I’m not saying Comey perjured himself. Perhaps he just didn’t know, or he got mixed up, or he misremembered. But you’d think that he would have his facts straight on this matter, given that his grossly irresponsible decision put Donald Trump in the White House and will forever define Comey’s legacy as a public servant. This new information only raises more questions about whether he is capable of withstanding the political pressure that comes with his job.
Let’s pause to remind ourselves just how appalling a decision it was for Comey to go public with the fact that the FBI was looking at Abedin’s computer, just 11 days before the election. While the evidence that Comey cost Clinton the election is compelling, we don’t have to adjudicate that right now. What we do have to note is that his decision was in direct violation of FBI policy against commenting on any investigation involving a candidate for office in the days before an election takes place, precisely to avoid the situation Comey created, in which the investigation becomes a campaign issue and influences the outcome of an election.
One of the most remarkable things we’ve learned recently is the degree to which Comey misunderstood that policy. Consider this remarkable conversation that took place just before he went public, as reported in the New York Times two weeks ago:
“Should you consider what you’re about to do may help elect Donald Trump president?” an adviser asked him, Mr. Comey recalled recently at a closed meeting with F.B.I. agents.He could not let politics affect his decision, he replied. “If we ever start considering who might be affected, and in what way, by what we do, we’re done,” he told the agents.
This is absolutely gobsmacking. Of course he had to consider whether candidates might be affected by his decision to inject himself into the campaign. That’s the entire reason the policy exists. The policy doesn’t tell them not to consider whether their actions will affect elections; it tells them that they have to make sure they don’t affect elections. Which requires considering how their actions might do that.
As two former deputy attorneys general (one a Democrat and one a Republican) wrote just after Comey made his startling “revelation” in October, “Decades ago, the department decided that in the 60-day period before an election, the balance should be struck against even returning indictments involving individuals running for office, as well as against the disclosure of any investigative steps,” in order to avoid “undermining the political process.”
I’m not arguing that Comey did what he did because he’s a Republican partisan who was trying to defeat Clinton. What has come through in extensive reporting on this subject is that his decision was probably motivated by a very particular fear: that Republicans would criticize him. In other words, it was not malice but cowardice that led him to do what he did.
Here’s what Comey said in his testimony by way of explanation:
“I could see two doors and they were both actions. One was labeled speak, the other was labeled conceal. Because here’s how I thought about it, I’m not trying to talk you into this, but I want you to know my thinking. Having repeatedly told this Congress, we are done and there’s nothing there, there’s no case there, there’s no case there, to restart in a hugely significant way, potentially finding the emails that would reflect on her intent from the beginning and not speak about it would require an active concealment, in my view.“And so I stared at speak and conceal. Speak would be really bad. There’s an election in 11 days, Lordy, that would be really bad. Concealing in my view would be catastrophic, not just to the FBI, but well beyond. And honestly, as between really bad and catastrophic, I said to my team we got to walk into the world of really bad.”
Comey’s implication that there’s something unusual about “concealing” the investigation is absurd. The FBI always “conceals” its investigations until they’re completed (and often even then). It’s not as though you can go to fbi.gov and read all the evidence they have in every pending case. So what did Comey mean when he said it would be “catastrophic” to not immediately tell the world that it was looking at some of Clinton’s emails?
What he meant is obvious: If he followed FBI policy, once they learned about it Republicans would accuse him of covering for Clinton. If she became president (which at the time everyone assumed would happen), they’d attack him in the media, they’d haul him before Congress, they’d curse his name. That’s the catastrophe he apparently feared.
And in his desperation to justify a decision that he made out of cowardice, Comey now hypes what the FBI supposedly found in Abedin’s emails, when what it actually found was basically nothing.
In case there was any doubt before, everyone — including the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress — knows that as much as Comey likes to think of himself as a steel-spined man of boundless integrity, in truth he’s acutely vulnerable to political pressure, as long as the pressure threatens that very image he has tried to create. Will they be able to use that vulnerability against him? I’m sure they’re going to try.