Comey Did the Right Thing

A rational and reasonable decision.

Photographer: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

In July, Republican James Comey was the toast of the Democratic Party. That was after he announced that “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for allowing e-mails with classified information to be stored on a private server. Party leaders praised the FBI director’s independence.

Now, many of Clinton’s supporters argue, as Republicans did over the summer, that Comey has terrible judgment and is playing politics.

Overblown reactions are standard fare in politics, as is hypocrisy (though some in both parties have consistently criticized Comey’s handling of the case). But a dispassionate review of Comey’s recent action tilts in his favor.

On Friday, Comey announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was preparing to look at a just-discovered collection of e-mails that “appear to be pertinent” to the Clinton investigation. Critics pounced, charging that tradition required him to stay mum about a pending investigative matter so close to the election. Comey anticipated this criticism, explaining in his brief letter to Congress that he felt obligated to act, “given that I testified repeatedly in recent months that our investigation was completed.” Not to do so, he said, “would be misleading to the American people” -- not to mention going back on his word to Congress.

There are good reasons that the Justice Department keeps quiet about political matters during the closing months of an election campaign. Steering clear of October surprises prevents unproven allegations from casting a cloud over candidates, and insulates law enforcement from charges of partisanship.

But not all cases are alike. This one involves an e-mail cloud that has hovered over Clinton throughout her 18-month candidacy. The political debate over her decision to use a private e-mail account for government business did not end with Comey’s legal absolution in July, but has lasted through the fall campaign. Comey could reasonably have decided that withholding this latest discovery would have unduly influenced the election.

Moreover, Comey surely understood that when news of the e-mail trove eventually came out, the FBI and DOJ would have faced the very charges of partisanship that institutional silence before elections is intended to prevent. And in a year when one of the major party nominees has spent much of his campaign sowing distrust in democratic processes, those charges could be especially damaging.

According to Donald Trump, everything is “rigged” against him, including the counting of ballots. Imagine if he were to lose and, weeks later, the developments in the Clinton case emerged. It’s difficult to overstate how harmful that could be for public confidence in government -- and for the legitimacy of Clinton’s victory. Nothing feeds a conspiracy like a lack of transparency.

There is no question that James Comey could have handled this better. He could have explained his actions more clearly, starting with an acknowledgment that the e-mails had not been reviewed and that it was eminently possible they would leave the July decision unaltered. A timetable and a sense of urgency would have helped, too.

Nevertheless, Comey’s decision to send the letter was a rational and reasonable one that honors the tradition his critics accuse him of violating.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.