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Opinion Sean Hannity and John Solomon slimed James Comey. Will they admit it?

Former FBI director James B. Comey on Capitol Hill in December 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

In the words of Fox News host Sean Hannity, it was a “huge massive breaking news” story: James B. Comey, the fired FBI director, would face a grim judgement from the Justice Department’s inspector general in an upcoming report on his famous memos summarizing his encounters with President Trump. “The DOJ’s watchdog, the Inspector General [Michael] Horowitz, is preparing a damning report on Comey’s conduct in his final days as the FBI director that will likely conclude that he leaked classified information and showed a lack of candor. That would be lying,” said Hannity during his July 31 program.

The revelation didn’t come from Hannity’s own sleuthing; it came from John Solomon, an “opinion contributor” at the Hill and part of the “Hannity” crew that supplies Fox News’s prime-time audience with often wobbly and salacious tidbits. That same day, Solomon reported the Comey details under the headline, “James Comey’s next reckoning is imminent — this time for leaking.” The opening paragraph:

The Justice Department’s chief watchdog is preparing a damning report on James Comey’s conduct in his final days as FBI director that likely will conclude he leaked classified information and showed a lack of candor after his own agency began looking into his feud with President Trump over the Russia probe.

On Hannity’s show, Solomon said, “My headline says it all. He’s got a day of reckoning coming on leaking but there is more ahead besides this. I can report definitively tonight that Attorney General [William P.] Barr and his team at the Justice Department did decline prosecution of James Comey on this narrow charge, of leaking classified information to a lawyer that then made its way to the news media.”

If only Solomon and Hannity had waited a month, as opposed to, like, preempting the inspector general’s report with an inaccurate preview that hewed to their ideological tastes. On Thursday, citizens got to see the “damning” report for themselves. And sure enough, it dings Comey for violating FBI policies governing the retention and handling of documents. He divulged the contents of one of the memos to the New York Times via a buddy, and he disclosed some of the material to his lawyers. Bad moves, all of them. “Former Director Comey failed to live up to this responsibility,” scolds the report. “By not safeguarding sensitive information obtained during the course of his FBI employment, and by using it to create public pressure for official action, Comey set a dangerous example for the over 35,000 current FBI employees — and the many thousands more former FBI employees — who similarly have access to or knowledge of non-public information.”

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Also, sure enough, the inspector general did not find that Comey had leaked "classified information to a lawyer that then made its way to the news media.” That allegation from Solomon stems from a set of events first explained by Comey himself in high-profile congressional testimony in June 2017. Comey shared information, he said, with a “close friend” so that it could make its way "out into the public square.” The friend turned out to be Columbia Law School professor Daniel Richman.

The memo in question — Memo 4, as identified in the report — was deemed by the FBI “For Official Use Only.” Not classified, in other words. Asked about his depiction of events, Solomon points to the report’s finding that “Comey leaked Memo 2 to his lawyers and that it was determined after the fact that the memo contained classified information at the confidential level.”

Indeed, Comey shared memos with his lawyers. When Solomon writes about “leaks,” however, he is leveraging a term that in this day and age has come to mean a disclosure of information to the media, not necessarily to some lawyer who’ll hide it in a safe. Furthermore, Solomon’s defense to the Erik Wemple Blog cites Comey’s handling of Memo 2. In his “Hannity” remarks, though, Solomon appeared to be citing what turned out to be Memo 4 — the information that ended up in the New York Times through Comey’s friend. There was nothing classified in that memo.

On to Solomon’s lack-of-candor allegation. Again, the inspector general’s actual report pronounces itself in various spots as unhappy with Comey’s comportment. For instance, it finds that he failed to comply with an obligation regarding the handling of classified information: “Once he knew that the FBI had classified portions of Memo 2, Comey failed to immediately notify the FBI that he had previously given Memo 2 to his attorneys.”

Call that shifty, or negligent, or lame. But “lack of candor"? That’s actually a technical term — an “offense code” — in the FBI’s internal disciplinary regime, meaning, ”knowingly providing false information when making a verbal or written statement . . . to a supervisor, another Bureau employee in an authoritative position, or another governmental agency, when the employee is questioned about his conduct or the conduct of another person.” A knowing falsehood, of course, is a lie. As discussed here, Comey’s former deputy, Andrew McCabe, was cited for four instances of “lack of candor” in connection with his authorization of a disclosure to the Wall Street Journal in October 2016.

A “lack of candor” finding against Comey is absent from the inspector general’s report released on Thursday. To back up his story, Solomon cites the inspector general’s conclusion that Comey failed to immediately notify the bureau about classified disclosures. Yet the report itself calls this conduct a violation of FBI policies, not a “lack of candor" — though it clearly qualifies as such to Solomon.

Perhaps Solomon should declare himself the new Justice Department inspector general.

“My column of July 31 accurately reported the IG’s findings,” writes Solomon in the email.

Read more:

Harry Litman: James Comey helped save democracy when he wrote his memos

Jennifer Rubin: The DOJ’s inspector general buries the real news

Erik Wemple: CNN glimpses its future with Andrew McCabe. It is grim.

James Comey: No ‘treason.’ No coup. Just lies — and dumb lies at that.