Too much talk.

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FBI's Comey Feeds Election Mistrust

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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FBI Director James Comey is an institution man. So it must be especially painful to him that he is single-handedly undermining faith not only in the institution he leads, but in the propriety of a presidential election.

Comey has been balancing the interests of those institutions, the FBI and the election, for months. In July, when he held a news conference to announce the conclusion of the bureau's investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails, he opted to buttress the FBI's reputation for probity at the expense of a presidential candidate. His news conference was unusual -- investigations are normally concluded without public fanfare -- and Comey's stark criticism of Clinton's conduct was remarkably so.

Republicans, who had made an ugly habit of recasting political differences with President Barack Obama as Obama's serial assaults on the Constitution, had recently switched their focus from Obama's perfidy to Clinton's. Talk of "criminal" Hillary and her future in "prison" became commonplace. At the GOP national convention in July, prominent Republican leaders led the crowd in a chant of "Lock her up." The echoes of mass rallies in a distant time and place were unmistakable.   

The Republican appetite for vengeance seems to have launched Comey on his unprecedented path. His July news conference was intended to deflate rage, defang attacks and present the FBI's behavior as fully justified.

The tactic failed. Republicans, dead certain of Clinton's guilt -- of something -- accused Comey of treachery. Democrats, relieved to have the issue of the e-mails resolved, mostly set aside their qualms, although former Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller, in particular, lambasted Comey in a Washington Post essay titled "James Comey's Abuse of Power."

Comey, a Republican appointed by Obama, had credibility with Democrats. In 2007, it was revealed that when he was a top deputy in the Justice Department in 2004, he had defied enormous pressure from the Bush White House to reauthorize a domestic surveillance program that the department had concluded was illegal. Comey had stood up for the Justice Department and the law. He was an institution man who had defied the political hacks.

When new e-mails surfaced recently in an unrelated investigation into former Representative Anthony Weiner, it's not hard to imagine Comey's dismay. Most of the e-mails probably have no relevance to Clinton, and the rest are no more likely to suggest criminal conduct than the thousands the FBI has already reviewed.

But Republicans are irate, claiming that the fix was in for Clinton at the FBI. And Comey, on the defensive, had foolishly told congressional Republicans that he would keep them apprised of any new developments.

If Comey failed to inform Congress of the new Weiner e-mails, he perhaps feared someone at the FBI would leak information about them. The bureau and Comey would then be further compromised, looming larger and more dastardly in the fever dream that has become the Republican Party's home. After all, Republicans were already claiming the FBI had thrown the election to Clinton. The Republican candidate for president denounces the election as "rigged" -- daily. Polls show that millions of Americans are gullible and confused, and angry enough to believe it.   

Comey had already made a mess with his news conference and testimony to Congress. He couldn't risk further damage to the FBI that a leak would inevitably produce, putting the institution in a defensive crouch vis-a-vis Republican lawmakers, potentially for years.

A casual reading of social media in the wake of Comey's Friday letter reveals a rush of irate Democrats who think the Republican head of the FBI is now trying to throw the election to Trump. The Clinton campaign is rallying its considerable troops.

Comey is now mistrusted and despised on all sides. The institution he leads is similarly mistrusted. The FBI is in disrepute. The fairness of the election is broadly in doubt. Comey should have known that you cannot appease rage, or reason with a fever dream.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net