The rash of stories on Donald Trump and Russia published Tuesday leave many questions unanswered. The allegations, as sensational as some are and as damning as others are, are just that: allegations. Intelligence agencies (not to mention countless news outlets) have sought to verify them for months now, with little or no success. Though it might be nice to imagine Trump’s presidency collapsing before it’s even begun, the fact remains that we know little more now than we did last week about Trump’s ties to Russia and whether Vladimir Putin’s government has compromising information on the president-elect. There is one thing we do know, though: FBI Director James Comey’s intervention in the election last October — controversial at the time — looks completely indefensible now.
A few hours before the explosive CNN and BuzzFeed reports landed on Tuesday, Comey was at a Senate intelligence committee hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked the director whether the FBI has “investigated these reported relationships [between the Trump campaign and Russia]?” Comey replied, “I would never comment on investigations … in an open forum like this.” When Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) pressed Comey on the same question later in the hearing, he repeated that “especially in a public forum, we never confirm or deny a pending investigation.” (King dryly replied, “The irony of your making that statement here, I cannot avoid.”)
So Comey understands that the FBI weighing in publicly on open investigations, when charges are still being proved, is unwise. Doing so puts those being investigated at the mercy of innuendo and rumor. Yet Comey ditched this rule when he notified Congress 11 days before the election that the FBI was looking into whether there were previously unrevealed emails from Hillary Clinton on a laptop belonging to her aide’s estranged husband. (It should also be noted that this followed months of anti-Clinton leaks from Rudy Giuliani’s friends in the FBI’s New York field office.)
Worse, the search warrant for the emails unsealed in December shows that, as The Post reported at the time, investigators “had no new evidence of actual wrongdoing” on Clinton’s part. Meanwhile, the Guardian reported Tuesday that the FBI thought the allegations of ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia credible enough that they sought a wiretap on four members of Trump’s team.
In other words, while Comey stayed silent about new accusations against Trump, he piped up about a big nothing-burger against Clinton.
Despite a second letter later clearing Clinton (again) of wrongdoing, the blow Comey’s letter struck against Clinton’s poll numbers is obvious, with clear declines across almost every major demographic group in the last two weeks of the election. The letter was the most decisive of several factors in Trump’s late comeback. To be clear, this is not to blame Clinton’s loss entirely on Comey. Clinton likely could have withstood the letter’s damage if she’d made a few different strategic decisions, such as shoring up so-called “blue wall” states like Michigan rather than campaigning in long-shot states like Texas.
But Comey’s behavior remains inexcusable. It is a shocking and disturbing double standard: staying silent on allegations against one candidate despite reams of new information, while reviving allegations against another candidate despite absolutely no new information. Doing so two weeks before Election Day compounds the terrible error. It is unlikely that a Trump administration will punish Comey for this mistake. History, however, will not judge him so kindly.