The sudden dismissal of FBI director James Comey has suddenly transformed the man blamed by many Democrats for Hillary Clinton’s defeat into the liberal Twittersphere’s Thomas a Becket and Donald Trump into Henry II ridding himself in vile fashion of a meddlesome priest. Such is the nature of whiplash politics, when a bad guy becomes a good guy simply by virtue of the utility he serves in whatever argument you wish to make.
I have no idea why Trump fired Comey, and neither does anyone else. Trump’s dimissal letter says (with an unfortunate split infinitive) that Comey is “not able to effectively lead the bureau.” But Comey’s effectiveness is not in question, to be honest, and the contention of the Becket Bunch that Trump might be working to impede the FBI’s examination of Russian meddling cannot be dismissed.
Comey’s judgment, however, should have been and should be questioned—and should have been found wanting by any chief executive serving or elected after his dreadful conduct during the 2016 election.
What Comey did on July 5 of last year in announcing his decision not to recommend charges against Hillary Clinton in the email investigation was a travesty. If, as he and everyone else has said, it was the unanimous decision of those looking at all of the evidence not to seek an indictment, it was a misuse of his power and authority to take to a podium and criticize her for her behavior. Indeed, his speech was so savagely negative it sure sounded like he was going to announce an indictment referral up until the moment he declared he would not do so. That was not right, it was not just, and it was not proper. He cleared her by casting a giant shadow over her campaign. This was prosecutorial indiscretion, and in my view, Barack Obama should have fired him right then and there.
It was the shocking and confusing nature of his statement that led the House to call Comey to testify and promise he would keep its members up to date on any changes or alterations in the proceedings. So when the investigation into Anthony Weiner revealed he had emails on his computer forwarded to him by his wife Huma Abedin, Clinton’s closest aide, Comey indeed had no choice but to apprise Rep. Jason Chaffetz that the FBI was going to look at those emails to make sure they weren’t new and weren’t classified.
Comey has declared himself “mildly nauseous” at the thought he might have had a material effect on the election, but maybe nausea isn’t the right word. Maybe what was bothering him wasn’t his stomach but his conscience. His insistence on making himself part of the electoral story on July 5 rather than simply putting out a statement saying the Justice Department did not find grounds on which to indict Mrs. Clinton placed his own overweening pride and insistence on defending the honor of his agency above all things.
In announcing the dismissal, the White House included a document written by Deputy Attorney General Ron Rosenstein that actually makes this argument very well. “We do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation,” declared Rosenstein, who pointed out as well that “the Director was wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution. It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement.”
Rosenstein is no political hack; he was U.S. attorney in Maryland under both Republican president George W. Bush and Democratic president Barack Obama before his nomination to the #2 slot at Justice, a post he only assumed after his confirmation two weeks ago. There is no reason to assume the argument Rosenstein makes in his powerfully argued memorandum, which he titled “Restoring Public Confidence in the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” is anything but genuine.
Comey’s fixation with his own virtue led him and us into uncharted waters, and set a dangerous precedent according to which people given the awesome and delicate responsibility of investigating their fellow citizens for crimes and misdemeanors can simply do whatever they please without hewing to the principle that everyone is innocent until proven guilty and no one should be talked about as though he or she were a criminal while being cleared of charges. It is better for the country that he is no longer director of the FBI. Comey is not Thomas a Becket. He’s Inspector Javert.