Why James Comey isn’t the hero you think he is

By Alex Ward

Former FBI Director James Comey may not be the hero the media wants you think he is.

The media is treating Comey like a hero. He’s not one.

Back in October 2016, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) called then-FBI Director James Comey’s decision to look into new Hillary Clinton emails just days before the election “appalling.” Her comment reflected the general sentiment among Democrats at the time.

But in May 2017, President Donald Trump fired Comey because the FBI wouldn’t end an investigation into a former top Trump aide’s Russia ties. Democrats, almost in unison, openly warned that dismissing Comey meant Trump may have tried to obstruct justice. And after reports surfaced that Trump had called Comey a “nut job,” Feinstein herself defended the former FBI director, saying that “Comey is no way, shape, or form a nut job.”

As Comey now sits down for high-profile interview after high-profile interview to promote his new book, expect the good feelings from Democrats and the media alike to keep coming.

Comey’s new memoir, A Higher Loyalty, is due to come out on Tuesday. The already-released excerpts indicate that it’s highly critical of Trump, and the tome will assuredly inspire more Comey fandom on television, radio, and print. It may lead to even more arguments, like Damon Linker’s in the Week last June, “that the former FBI director is a bona fide American hero.”

But painting Comey that way misses a lot. He led the FBI when the bureau possibly mishandled its investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state, perhaps costing Hillary Clinton the election. He was also the FBI director when he oversaw increased surveillance of Muslim communities and a culture of suspicion against Muslims and used suspect methods to stop terrorists.

Put together, as the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan noted on March 31, Comey is undeserving of the veneration and softball questions he will surely field in the coming days in response to his much-hyped new book. That, in part, is because he did a successful job at cultivating his holier-than-thou persona, says Matthew Miller, a top Justice Department spokesperson in the Obama administration.

“He wanted to position himself as the hero,” Miller told me, “the man of integrity who was going to tell the American people how it is — the last virgin in town.”

The problem, though, is that the media fell for it.

How Comey handled the Clinton probe

Former FBI Director James Comey on Capitol Hill on January 13, 2017.

Former FBI Director James Comey on Capitol Hill on January 13, 2017.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

At around 11 am on July 5, 2016, then-FBI Director Comey gave a surprise televised address — thrusting him into the national spotlight.

“This will be an unusual statement in at least a couple ways,” he admitted from the FBI’s lectern. “I am going to include more detail about our process than I ordinarily would, because I think the American people deserve those details in a case of intense public interest.”

The “case” in question was the FBI’s probe into Clinton’s use of a personal email server to conduct State Department business. Investigators wanted to know if Clinton had handled classified information on an insecure network, which could make it easier for foreign adversaries to steal top secrets.

But Comey recommended no criminal charges to the Justice Department, instead reprimanding her as “extremely careless” after finding 110 emails containing classified information among the 30,000 reviewed messages.

The following day, then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch accepted Comey’s choice not to charge Clinton. (Lynch had just days before that decision met with Bill Clinton on an Arizona tarmac, leading to calls for her recusal from the case.) Comey, in effect, closed the case.

According to an April 2017 New York Times report about Comey’s actions during the election, he chose this approach for a few reasons. First, to let those people within the FBI who were upset with Clinton’s conduct know that Comey heard and understood their concerns. But second, and most importantly, he aimed to shield the bureau from GOP-led attacks that the FBI took it easy on Clinton.

Those attacks came anyway. “This announcement defies explanation. No one should be above the law,” House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted after Comey’s remarks. “It appears damage is being done to the rule of law.”

But the more controversial moment came three months later. As part of a probe into former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-NY) sexually explicit conversations with a minor, the FBI found some of Clinton’s emails on his laptop. That was no coincidence: Huma Abedin, Weiner’s wife and a close Clinton aide at the State Department, backed up thousands of emails on her husband’s computer. Some agents believed Clinton had hid emails from them, adding to suspicions that the messages on Weiner’s laptop might just be the missing emails.

And then on October 28, Comey informed Congress of what happened in a letter: “In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation.”

It was the “October surprise” many feared — the reopening of an investigation into Clinton just 11 days before the election. According to polling expert Nate Silver, Comey changed the vote’s outcome by making the probe’s restart public:

Clinton’s standing in …read more

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