James B. Comey has always been a complicated man in American politics. His decision as FBI director in 2016 not to charge Hillary Clinton for use of her private email server when she was secretary of state was hailed by Democrats. Those same Democrats later blamed him for Clinton’s loss, after he publicly disclosed newly discovered Clinton emails shortly before the presidential election. Then his 2017 firing by President Trump set in motion the special-counsel investigation and turned Comey into a key witness in the case — both legally and eventually politically — against Trump.
So it should be no surprise that a long-anticipated inspector general’s report on Comey’s leaking to the media — perhaps the final chapter in Comey’s long career in public service — should provide a mixed bag.
The report says Comey violated both FBI policy and his employment agreement by not turning over some memos when he was fired and later by leaking details of the memos to the media. Comey previously admitted that he leaked details of one of the memos to the New York Times through an intermediary. He even admitted he hoped that the information, which included details of his private conversations with Trump, would lead to the appointment of a special counsel.
But the report also discloses that the FBI has declined to prosecute Comey for these violations, and — notably — it says there is “no evidence” that he or his attorneys leaked classified information.
That last point is key, because Trump has accused Comey of exactly that, and repeatedly — at least 10 times over two years, according to a review of Trump’s comments.
“James Comey leaked CLASSIFIED INFORMATION to the media,” Trump tweeted July 10, 2017, shortly after news broke of the leak. “That is so illegal!”
“He leaked CLASSIFIED information, for which he should be prosecuted,” he tweeted April on April 13, 2018.
“He leaked classified information,” Trump told Sean Hannity in March of this year. “Well, if somebody in our team leaked classified information, it would be years in jail.”
Trump made this claim based upon a report that some of the memos Comey wrote about his conversations with Trump contained classified information. Even that report, though, didn’t indicate Comey leaked those memos or any classified information.
That didn’t stop Trump and some of his allies, such as “Fox and Friends,” from connecting those dots without evidence.
The IG now says, after a thorough investigation, that Trump’s claim was unfounded. “We found no evidence that Comey or his attorneys released any of the classified information contained in any of the Memos to members of the media,” the report says.
And Comey did a victory lap on Twitter.
“I don’t need a public apology from those who defamed me, but a quick message with a ‘sorry we lied about you’ would be nice,” he said.
But Comey’s tweets mask the severity of his rebuke. Even if Trump’s accusation was characteristically false and overcooked, that doesn’t mean the report is good for Comey. It describes him engaging in behavior that clearly violates department policy and sets “a dangerous example for the over 35,000 current FBI employees.”
“Former Director Comey failed to live up to this responsibility,” it says.
At another point, it notes that Comey himself claimed to abhor such leaks as FBI director. “We just cannot do our work well or fairly if we start talking about it while we’re doing it,” he said while testifying to Congress about Russian election interference. He added in one of his memos that the FBI’s work is compromised “if people run around telling the press what we do."
The report notes that Comey’s leak to the New York Times came even as the FBI was still investigating.
“This is no doubt part of the reason why Comey’s closest advisors used the words ‘surprised,’ ‘stunned,’ ‘shocked,’ and ‘disappointment’ to describe their reactions to learning what Comey had done,” the IG report says.
Comey seems to regard these particular set of circumstances as being exceptional and warranting his leak, given the stakes. But the IG specifically rebukes that line of argument.
“On occasion, some of these employees may disagree with decisions by prosecutors, judges, or higher ranking FBI and Department officials about the actions to take or not take in criminal and counterintelligence matters,” the report says, adding: “But even when these employees believe that their most strongly-held personal convictions might be served by an unauthorized disclosure, the FBI depends on them not to disclose sensitive information.”
So it appears the we’re closing the chapter on Comey’s time as FBI director rather appropriately, with a political Rorschach test in which people can see, emphasize and believe exactly what they want about him.