James B. Comey isn’t interested in being your blunt instrument; he would rather just be blunt.
If there’s anything the former FBI director’s book and his first interview about it on Sunday night showed, it’s that Comey continues to defy attempts to pigeonhole or use him. He’s not going to lead Democrats’ charge on collusion, obstruction of justice or impeachment. And he has presented himself as too imperfect a figure — one overly concerned with appearances, politics and ego — even if they wanted him to.
Shortly after Trump fired Comey, former Justice Department official Matthew Miller explained Comey to me this way: “I think he is a man of integrity, but he also thinks of himself very much as a man of integrity and likes the spotlight that highlights that.” Comey’s controversial dual announcements during the 2016 campaign were the clearest evidence of that desire for the spotlight, and after his firing it seemed the next spotlight Comey craved was the one in which he returned the favor by getting Trump fired.
But in a lot of ways, his book tour seems to be going after absolution rather than Trump. He’s not comfortable with impeaching Trump but seems oddly comfortable impeaching himself as a witness against Trump.
There is, of course, the admission that he may (perhaps subconsciously) have disclosed those new Hillary Clinton emails shortly before the 2016 election because he thought she would win the election. “I’m sure that it was a factor,” he told ABC, going even further than he did in his book. He went on to talk in detail about considering the politics of the Clinton investigation in a way that seems ... curious?
And he told ABC he struggled with similar thoughts when it came to whether to charge Martha Stewart. “Folks don’t realize this, but I almost hesitated and almost didn’t bring the case against Martha Stewart, in hindsight, because she was rich and famous,” he said. “And [I] decided that if she were anybody else — any other ordinary person — she would be prosecuted.”
In recounting his conversations with then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch about Clinton’s emails, he has said Lynch asked him to describe the probe as a “matter” rather than an “investigation” — and that it rubbed him the wrong way. But whatever principled difference he felt there was, he told ABC he didn’t press it. “I didn’t know exactly why she was doing that, but I decided in that moment that the whole world would miss the distinction between investigation and matter, and so I dropped it at that point.”
At other junctures, Comey seemed almost unconcerned with appearing vindictive and even petty. He clearly holds a grudge against Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein for the memo Rosenstein wrote making the case for Comey’s firing, saying Rosenstein “acted dishonorably” and that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe is an opportunity for him to “restore some of his professional reputation.” He dug at Trump’s appearance in a way you might sooner expect from, well, Trump: “His tie was too long, as it always is. He looked slightly orange up close with small white half-moons under his eyes, which I assume are from tanning goggles.” He continued to dwell upon the evidence-free accusation in the Steele dossier that Trump watched prostitutes urinate on a bed in a Moscow hotel room, which feels mostly driven by book sales (unless he knows something he isn’t saying). He similarly suggested in his book that Lynch might be “politically compromised,” but he told ABC that he investigated it and “found no indication that it was true.”
(Carlos Lozada, who writes more gracefully on this topic than I could, notes a few other instances from the book that suggest Comey may at times fail his own integrity tests.)
Comey doesn’t have a government job now, and he’s not leading any investigations. So he needn’t appear above politics or immune to grudges anymore. But if he was looking to prosecute the case against Trump in the court of public opinion, he has chosen a strange way in which to do it.
And even he recognizes the strangeness of his posture here. Speaking to ABC, he volunteered what he acknowledged was a “strange answer” about whether he wants to impeach Trump.
“I think impeaching and removing Donald Trump from office would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they’re duty-bound to do directly,” he said. “People in this country need to stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values.”
It’s almost as if he’s begging off the responsibility of taking down the other candidate in the 2016 race, because he didn’t much enjoy it the first time.