To hear the Trump team tell it, the media’s biggest sin was reporting on potential collusion and obstruction of justice. When special counsel Robert S. Mueller III concluded there was no criminal conspiracy and punted on obstruction, all of it was immediately rendered foolish, overzealous speculation. Reporters who circumspectly detailed key events months and years before Mueller did publicly were suddenly lumped in with pundits who had declared President Trump to be a guilty man.
But many of the same people who objected to this exercise were happy to publicly convict James B. Comey of something he’s now been cleared of. They did so using an unfounded allegation that’s now proved baseless.
A long-anticipated inspector general’s report on Thursday found Comey violated FBI policy by failing to turn over memos after Trump fired him and later leaking details of the memos to the New York Times through an intermediary. Importantly, though, the Justice Department won’t prosecute Comey.
Also importantly: the inspector general found “no evidence” that Comey leaked any information that was classified.
That’s news to plenty of Comey’s critics, including Trump, who have assured us for two years that Comey had done just that. As I noted Thursday, Trump said Comey had leaked classified information at least 10 times, but he wasn’t alone.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) cited the “leaks of classified correspondence from Mr. Comey to the press.”
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) said “James Comey leaked classified information to the media."
“We know that Jim Comey has leaked classified information,” former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said in May 2018 on Fox Business Network — a claim he repeated on Fox News just this month.
Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett said in April 2018 that Comey “leaked these classified documents to three people who he’s hired as his counsel so he can hide behind the attorney-client privilege on these communications."
“I want to know how he can admit on camera and during testimony that he leaked classified memos from presidential meetings and he hasn’t been charged with a felony; that’s what I’d like to know,” former White House aide Sebastian Gorka told Fox Business’s Lou Dobbs that same month. Dobbs would go on to say twice that Comey appeared to have leaked classified information.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson assured viewers earlier this month that “Comey was responsible for the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.” Even after playing a clip of Comey denying that the specific information he leaked contained classified materials, Carlson doubled down. He said, “The FBI has determined that Comey’s leaked memos did in fact contain classified information that Comey failed to redact.”
It’s not clear what this was based on, and the inspector general says it’s not true.
“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 inspector general report says.
Even after the report came out, though, the claim won’t die. Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) took to Twitter and wrongly maintained it showed Comey “leaked classified info.”
Today's IG report shows James Comey stole documents, leaked classified info, violated FBI policy. This is 2nd investigation into his mismanagement. Another another one coming. And we're still supposed to believe President firing him was obstruction? Gimme a break!— Scott DesJarlais (@DesJarlaisTN04) August 29, 2019
The genesis of this claim is clear. In 2017, the Hill’s John Solomon reported that four of the seven memos Comey wrote about his conversations with Trump contained classified information. But even that story didn’t say whether those specific memos were leaked or whether any classified information was communicated.
The next day, though, Trump and “Fox & Friends” were connecting those dots.
James Comey leaked CLASSIFIED INFORMATION to the media. That is so illegal!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 10, 2017
“James Comey leaked CLASSIFIED INFORMATION to the media,” Trump said in a tweet. “That is so illegal!”
Instant fact checks noted they were connecting dots that the record hadn’t connected, and “Fox & Friends” corrected itself the next day. But that didn’t stop Trump and other GOP politicians and conservative pundits from making the same claim repeatedly over the next two years. Even as recently as a month ago, Solomon reported that the report “likely will conclude [Comey] leaked classified information.”
When pundits were saying Trump colluded with Russia or obstructed justice, they were often referring to publicly available reports and facts that overwhelmingly turned out to be true. They were inferring criminality based upon that information, at a time when prosecutors themselves hadn’t yet decided on that point.
In this case, Comey’s critics, including the president, were trafficking in a claim that hadn’t been reported, much less proven, to argue that he committed a crime. Now this claim has been shown to be a complete invention.
It’s pretty breathtaking in its hypocrisy.