Thoughts on James Comey, the law-enforcement official who helped elect a corrupt president

April 21, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 21, 2018

When Donald Trump’s rampage through politics is fictionalized — assuming civilization survives the Trump administration — the figure of one James Comey will loom large. This will be especially true, I imagine, in any operas that might be written about final days of the 2016 campaign and the early months of Trump’s reign.

Once an assistant federal prosecutor who targeted New York crime families, Comey was elevated first to U.S. attorney and then to deputy attorney general by President George W. Bush. In the spring of 2004, Comey rushed to the hospital room of his boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft, to block White House officials from reauthorizing a sweeping domestic surveillance program that several Justice Department officials believed featured illegal components.

Comey is widely admired in civil liberties circles for taking this stand, but not all of his decisions are as popular. Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that Comey was criticized for his defense of the indefinite detention of Jose Padilla, an American citizen whom the government classified as an “enemy combatant.” Still, when President Barack Obama nominated Comey to lead the FBI in 2013, the Senate confirmed his appointment on a 93-1 vote.

Comey appears to be a devout Christian. He studied chemistry and religion at William & Mary, where, according to CNN, he “wrote a thesis comparing the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to the televangelist Jerry Falwell.” Comey wed to his college girlfriend in 1987, two years after earning a law degree from the University of Chicago; they remain married and have had six children together.

As New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani noted in her review of the former FBI director’s new memoir, the buttoned-down Comey is the perfect foil to the undisciplined, free-wheeling, thrice-married man he helped elect president:

Put the two men’s records, their reputations, even their respective books, side by side, and it’s hard to imagine two more polar opposites than Trump and Comey: They are as antipodean as the untethered, sybaritic Al Capone and the square, diligent G-man Eliot Ness in Brian De Palma’s 1987 movie “The Untouchables”; or the vengeful outlaw Frank Miller and Gary Cooper’s stoic, duty-driven marshal Will Kane in Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 classic “High Noon.”

One is an avatar of chaos with autocratic instincts and a resentment of the so-called “deep state” who has waged an assault on the institutions that uphold the Constitution.

The other is a straight-arrow bureaucrat, an apostle of order and the rule of law…

Comey seems to have formed an almost immediate dislike for, or at least distrust of, the man who would become America’s 45th president. The seasoned law-enforcement official found the ersatz real-estate mogul similar to the mob bosses whom he’d once prosecuted, leading him to memorialize his encounters with the president in a way he hadn’t deemed necessary for meetings with George W. Bush or Barack Obama. The FBI director, per Politico:

felt Trump, unlike previous presidents he worked with, might lie about their conversations and therefore he needed to keep a detailed record.

“I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it important to document,” Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee last June. “That combination of things I had never experienced before, but had led me to believe I got to write it down and write it down in a very detailed way.”

Trump fired Comey in May 2017. The ostensible reason was that Comey had treated Trump’s general election opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, too harshly. But as Trump himself readily admitted that week in a TV interview, the true impetus for the decision was that Comey had allowed an investigation of possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russians to continue.

Although Trump’s fame and business fortunes were revived when he became host of the reality show The Apprentice, where his catchphrase was “You’re fired,” Comey didn’t even get the courtesy of a phone call or email message regarding his dismissal. Instead, he received word of his firing from TV reports while addressing FBI agents in Los Angeles after Trump’s written notice of termination was delivered to bureau headquarters in the District of Columbia.

Almost from that day, Comey has been one of Trump’s most prominent and persistent critics. His new memoir, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership, continues that tendencies. In the book, Comey calls Trump “unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values.” (Trump responded — in a pair of early-morning tweets, naturally — by calling the former FBI head “a weak and untruthful slime ball.”)

The immense irony here is that Trump very likely would not have been elected but for two fateful actions Comey took amidst the hotly contested presidential campaign between Trump and Hillary Clinton. In July, Comey announced that a lengthy investigation into the latter’s handling of sensitive email messages during her time as secretary of state under Obama would not and should not result in criminal charges. While making this proclamation, however, Comey blasted Clinton and her associates for their “extremely careless” handling of classified information. Comey’s public elaboration of a probe that would not lead to charges was unprecedented; his criticism of Clinton while making this unusual announcement was, if anything, even more extraordinary.

Comey’s second fateful intervention took place on Oct. 28, 12 days before the election. That was when he sent a letter to Congress suggesting that the FBI might reopen its investigation into Clinton’s handling of emails after learning of a computer owned by Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former congressman and husband of a top Clinton aide. A number of political scientists who have studied the election believe that Comey’s letter, which triggered several days of email-related news stories, essentially tipped the election to Trump.

There are currently two mutually exclusive schools of thought regarding Comey. One group reviles the former law-enforcement administrator for having helped elevate Trump to the Oval Office; the other lauds him for his frequent insults of the current president.

Personally, I believe Comey to be neither hero nor heel. During the election, his attempts to protect the FBI while satisfying multiple sovereigns — a Democratic president and attorney general and the Republican Party to which he belonged for most of his adult life — redounded to the benefit of someone Comey considered manifestly unfit for office. However, Comey has striven to be a truth-teller both before and since making decisions that hurt Clinton.

Comey is someone who found himself caught in an impossible situation. He did what he thought was objectively correct, but he ended up catalyzing an incredibly harmful president and got personally burned. (The former FBI head is now known as “Lyin’ James Comey” among Trump devotees.)

In my view, we should evaluate Comey’s actions, past, present and future, on a case-by-case basis. Not everything he does is to be exalted; nor is everything he does to be despised.

In this way, he’s much like the vast majority of humanity: A person who gets things right at times and wrong at others.

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