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Opinion Comey’s remarkable new admission helps explain how Trump won

Former FBI director James B. Comey called President Trump “morally unfit” during his first TV interview since being fired. Watch all the highlights. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)


Former FBI director James B. Comey’s new book and media tour have been closely scrutinized in all kinds of ways, but there should be a lot more media discussion about another inescapable takeaway from his revelations: The grievances of Hillary Clinton and her supporters about what happened in the 2016 election have proved to be well-grounded and legitimate.

Comey has just given a new interview to NPR that drives this home. In it, Comey admits that his decision to sharply criticize Clinton at a July 2016 news conference — at which he closed the email probe — was not only a break with department protocol but also that it would have been “reasonable” under the circumstances to have said nothing.

Asked by NPR’s Steve Inskeep what the FBI would have done to close the case if it had been an “ordinary investigation,” Comey said:

“In the ordinary case, we would most likely in writing prepare some sort of summary of what our investigation had determined and then send it over to the Justice Department, and they would in the ordinary case either say nothing, which is the most common case, or at most issue a letter to the target saying, or the subject saying it’s over, or some minimal statement about it.”

Under ordinary circumstances he’d never publicly criticize the subject. Comey has repeatedly said this case was extraordinary because the FBI would come under heavy scrutiny after closing a probe into a presidential candidate, and he didn’t want the public to lack confidence in the electoral outcome if Clinton won. Comey repeated this to NPR.

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But Inskeep then pressed Comey on why he thought public confidence in a Clinton win might be lacking. Inskeep noted that Comey writes in his book that, initially, Comey thought it was absurd to see Bill Clinton’s infamous meeting on a tarmac with then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch as part of a conspiracy to exonerate Hillary Clinton, as many on the right were painting it. But Comey wrote that cable TV coverage of it as allegedly nefarious influenced his thinking about how the FBI would be perceived in all this and how to handle the Clinton probe. Then the following exchange happened:

INSKEEP: Would it perhaps have been a better course of action to resist all that shouting out there and do something closer to what you would normally do?
COMEY: Look, I meant what I said earlier — a reasonable person might have done that. I think that would have been a mistake …

Comey went on to claim that other factors, not just cable coverage, led him to conclude that public confidence would be in doubt. So this is not an admission of error on Comey’s part. But it is an admission that the cable news chatter partly influenced him, and that it would have been reasonable to refrain from doing what he did end up doing. In other words, he didn’t have to do it. And if he had refrained, he would not have lodged public criticism of Clinton, which surely helped fuel media coverage that created the impression that both Clinton and Donald Trump, with his history of business grift and shady dealing, had equivalent “question marks hanging over their heads,” as Brian Beutler puts it.

Now apply this to another key revelation from Comey, this one concerning his decision to announce 11 days before the election that “new” emails relevant to the Clinton probe had been discovered. In his book, Comey admits: “It is entirely possible that, because I was making decisions in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president, my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restarted investigation bore greater weight than it would have if the election appeared closer.”

The through line between these two events is why Comey worried about this prospect. If media attacks — many of which came from the right — on the FBI’s handling of the Clinton probe helped influence his decision to hold the July 2016 presser, it is almost certainly true that this weighed on his decision to announce the “new” emails as well.

Former FBI director James B. Comey details his conversations with President Trump in his new book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership.” (Video: Patrick Martin, Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

A decades-long GOP campaign

As Jonathan Chait explains, Comey’s willingness to let such concerns influence these episodes reflects the success of a decades-long campaign by Republicans and GOP-aligned media to skew the political dialog by hyping fake scandals, which in this case led Comey to act to “avoid charges of favoritism,” thus willingly handing bad-faith actors leverage over law enforcement. It’s hard to read Comey’s NPR interview as anything other than confirmation of this. Worse, Comey also revealed that not allowing this to happen would have been a perfectly appropriate outcome.

All of this implicates the media’s conduct as well — both before and after the fact. Though Comey’s last-minute email revelation admittedly created a complicated editorial conundrum, it was widely hyped by the media in a manner that was surely disproportionate, given that at the time, no one knew whether the emails amounted to anything at all (which, it turned out, they didn’t). As Nate Silver has shown, the episode may have helped tip the election to Trump.

When supporters of Clinton made these points after the election, they were widely derided for being in denial about the real reasons Clinton lost. The notion that Comey and related over-the-top press coverage might have played an important role was greeted — including by some neutral reporters — as self-evidently, uproariously, knee-slappingly absurd, as if it constituted nothing more than hopeless partisan brainwashing.

It is true that Clinton lost for all kinds of other reasons, including her own role in emailgate, her flaws as a candidate, multiple strategic failures by the campaign and various unhealthy tendencies in the Democratic Party. But as Comey himself has now confirmed, the conduct for which he was responsible didn’t have to happen. Comey won’t allow himself to take this extra step, but his own retrospective testimony also confirms that it should not have happened. It likely helped Trump win, and to the degree that it did, it produced genuine institutional and systemic failure on multiple fronts. Comey’s media tour should lead us to forthrightly grapple with this — and to acknowledge that Clinton supporters are absolutely right to be bitterly angry over it to this day.

* TRUMP DECIDES AGAINST NEW RUSSIA SANCTIONS: After U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley announced new sanctions on Russian companies found to be helping Syria with chemical weapons, the White House contradicted her. Now the New York Times reports:

Another White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations, said Mr. Trump had decided not to go forward with the sanctions. … Mr. Trump was annoyed with Ms. Haley for getting out in front of the policy, the administration official said, and the president’s decision to reject sanctions left her hanging in public with her credibility on the line.

The Times notes that this reflects the fact that the administration is “struggling to find a coherent and consistent voice in dealing with Russia,” which is one way to put it.

* CONFUSION AROUND HALEY’S ANNOUNCEMENT: The Post reports that Haley, in announcing the new Russian sanctions, may have gotten ahead of Trump, but even that’s not clear:

Privately, another White House official said Haley got ahead of herself and made “an error that needs to be mopped up.” But other administration officials expressed skepticism that Haley had merely misspoken. They said Haley is one of the most disciplined and cautious members of the Cabinet, especially when it comes to her public appearances. She regularly checks in with Trump personally to go over her planned statements before she sits for television interviews.

It does seem unlikely that Haley would have gone forward with this without authorization. So what changed after her announcement? Haley has said nothing since to clarify what happened.

* PUBLIC WANTS TOUGHER RUSSIA RESPONSE: A new Post/ABC News poll finds that 68 percent of Americans support tougher sanctions on Russia. This includes 68 percent of Republicans.

The poll also finds that a plurality, 49 percent, thinks Trump has done too little to criticize Russia’s violations of international law. Only 38 percent say he’s got it about right. Intriguingly, 71 percent of Republicans say Trump has got it about right, even though Republicans also want tougher sanctions.

* HANNITY DEFENDED COHEN ON AIR: Yesterday we learned Fox’s Sean Hannity has been a client (he says he only got advice) of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. The Times reminds us that Hannity defended Cohen on the air when the feds raided his office:

On April 9 — the night of the F.B.I. raids on Mr. Cohen — Mr. Hannity, in high dudgeon, opened his show by telling viewers to “keep in mind that Cohen was never part of the Trump administration or the Trump campaign.” … Without mentioning his relationship with Mr. Cohen, he continued, “Now, what that means is, Mueller’s witch-hunt investigation is now a runaway train that is clearly careening off the tracks.”

Something is careening off the tracks here, but it isn’t Mueller’s investigation.

* THE HOLES IN HANNITY’S STORY: Hannity is claiming he only sought informal advice from Cohen, and that his conversations never involved a third party. Callum Borchers notes the problems with Hannity’s story:

Hannity’s denial is a bit confusing. Hannity sought Cohen’s legal counsel only on matters involving Hannity and himself? It is also unclear why, if Cohen’s work for Hannity was innocuous, the two men sought to keep their relationship secret.

Indeed, Cohen’s lawyer had expressly argued against revealing Hannity’s name, on the grounds that he’d be “embarrassed” by it.

* ROSENSTEIN’S REPLACEMENT COULD LIMIT MUELLER PROBE: If Trump fires Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, next in line is Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who would then oversee the Mueller probe. Now Politico reports:

While Francisco’s views of the Russia probe are not publicly known, as a private lawyer in 2016, he accused Comey’s FBI of overreaching in high-profile political investigations and overstepping its investigative authority — arguments similar to those voiced by Mueller’s conservative critics.

Which means that Francisco could very well fire Mueller or limit the investigation or conceivably help make sure Mueller’s findings remain buried.