FBI Director James B. Comey announced Tuesday that he would not recommend any criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server as secretary of state.
That decision earned Comey a date with the House Oversight Committee. (Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch will also appear before the House Judiciary Committee next week.)
The question from there is: How hard will Republicans go on him?
There were plenty of critiques of Comey's decision Tuesday by Republicans. Relatively few of those critiques went after the man himself, though — which isn't too surprising. Comey is generally a very well-respected public official. He is also a Republican public official who served in the Bush administration, as deputy attorney general — the No. 2-ranking official in the Justice Department.
In other words, painting him as a partisan who just did the dirty work of the Obama administration or the Clintons would be tough to pull off. Yet that might be the temptation for House Republicans on Thursday. And should Republicans go down that road, it's not hard to see it going sideways on them.
But it's not just because of his nonpartisan reputation; it's also because Comey knows his way around a political minefield. We saw it in his 15-minute statement on Tuesday, in which he took care to deal with the politics at hand and strongly criticized Clinton while also strongly recommending no charges. The man made it through the afternoon in one piece.
It wasn't his first trip across some tricky terrain. There was the time last year when Comey gave an uncharacteristically bold speech — for a public official, at least — on race and police at a time when racial tensions were high.
And then there was the time Comey testified before Congress, delivering a statement that has been labeled the "most riveting 20 minutes of congressional testimony — maybe ever."
Here's what our own Paul Kane wrote when Comey was nominated as FBI director back in 2013:
It was May 2007, and the newly empowered Democrats were conducting sweeping oversight investigations of the Alberto Gonzales-led Justice Department, particularly the unusual firings of a handful of U.S. attorneys a few years earlier.The investigations, however, seemed to be losing steam.Enter James Comey — and a then-little-known staffer, Preet Bharara. Bharara was senior counsel to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the political pit bull who had led much of the DOJ probe in the Senate, and more importantly, Bharara had previously worked as a junior federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York when Comey was the U.S. attorney there. (Previous U.S. attorneys in this plum post include Louis Freeh and Rudolph Giuliani — and the current occupant is none other than Bharara.)What Bharara knew that the House Democrats didn't know was that Comey wanted to tell this amazing story about a constitutional crisis in the hospital room of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2004. So Bharara arranged for Comey to testify before a Senate subcommittee.The usually loquacious Schumer stopped asking Comey questions and just let him give a long statement telling the tale of something that seemed like a movie plot. You could hear a pin drop in the Dirksen hearing room, and in fact we did, when one reporter — stunned at what he was hearing — literally just dropped his pen onto the press table.Words don't do this testimony justice, so just watch it.
It's worth watching, if only to get a sense of the Olympic-level spin skills it would take to turn this guy into a GOP bogeyman in the Hillary Clinton emails case. If there's one guy Democrats want in that chair on Thursday, Comey might be the guy.