Politics

Democrats Need Comey to Stay Put

Sure, everybody's mad at the FBI director. But would they prefer a Trump pick to investigate Russia?

Be careful what you wish for.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Democrats calling for James Comey's head should cut it out. They’re making a political death wish.

Many of them resent the FBI director's election-eve intrusion into the presidential election, when he restarted an inquiry into Hillary Clinton's private e-mail server then quickly produced nothing.

"He should pack his things and go," said Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia. Senator Bernie Sanders chimed in, "It would not be a bad thing for the American people if he did step down."

QuickTake Q&A: Russian Election Hacking

It would be bad, however, for getting to the bottom of serious, unsubstantiated charges about possible connections between President-elect Donald Trump and the Russian government. If Comey steps down or is pushed out, it would make it easier for Trump and his likely attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to pick a new director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI directors serve 10-year terms, but can be fired at any time by a president willing to endure the political heat.

A Trump-friendly FBI chief could easily doom a criminal inquiry into whether anyone associated with Trump or the Trump campaign was in contact with Russian sources about the hacking of Democrats’ e-mail accounts and the release of embarrassing contents during the presidential election. Involvement by Americans in what U.S. intelligence agencies have said was Russian meddling could be a criminal act and therefore is in the purview of the FBI.

Despite complaints from all sides, Comey is not a partisan, and it’s likely that he feels compelled to get to the bottom of the Trump-Russia questions, especially since it's now clear that the bureau knew about the charges and didn't make them public prior to the election, when the inquiry into Clinton was revealed.

The Clinton disclosure was a huge mistake by Comey, who bowed to pressure from inside the bureau and from Capitol Hill Republicans. On Oct. 28, he notified Congress and the public about a new line of inquiry into Clinton's use of a private e-mail server while she was secretary of state in a case he’d concluded without criminal charges months earlier. This was against department policy and over the objections of Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Nine days later, Comey said no evidence was uncovered in this new investigation.

But this was all in the final stages of the election; some polls and the Clinton campaign suggest it tilted the election to Trump.

The current controversy began with memos written by a respected former British intelligence agent working for Republican opponents of Trump. The memos include unvetted reports suggesting that Russia has incriminating financial and personal information about the president-elect, and that people connected to the Republican candidate communicated with Russians about the hacking and leaking of private Democratic e-mails during the election campaign.

None of this has been verified despite efforts to do so by journalists. Some of it may be deliberately misleading and some of it is known to be wrong. The U.S. intelligence agencies, however, took it seriously enough to brief Trump, President Barack Obama and  congressional leaders on it.The Republican-run Senate Intelligence Committee, after first ducking the issue, now says it will investigate the allegations.

High-level former Justice Department officials, Democrats who remain furious over Comey's decision on Clinton, nevertheless are convinced that he'd try to conduct an honest and thorough investigation of the Russia-Trump charges.

Comey, a Republican whose term expires in 2023, has the authority to investigate any leads, including the ones from the British ex-spy's memos. However, he would have to enlist a supportive United States attorney for subpoena power to haul anyone before a grand jury.

If the investigation gathers steam, law-enforcement officials say the natural venue would be New York City, where U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has agreed to remain in office after meeting with Trump. As attorney general, Sessions could put a stop to any inquiry, but that would ignite a political firestorm.

At congressional hearings last week, Comey declined to say whether the bureau was investigating the possible Russian-Trump connections, declaring it was policy not to comment on pending inquiries. That drew a pointed observation from Senator Angus King, a Maine independent, clearly alluding to the disclosure of the Clinton inquiry last October. "The irony of your making that statement I cannot avoid," King said.

That irony, and concern for his reputation, would probably make Comey all the more determined to get to the bottom of the Trump-Russia charges. That's why a number of Republicans, reportedly including some in the incoming administration, would like to see him go.

Democrats like Johnson and Sanders would be unwise to help them.

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:
    Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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