Politics

Comey's Calculations Favored the GOP

The FBI director and his agency may have feared the right's scandal machine above all else.

Unequal options.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey told a Senate hearing today that he faced an ugly choice during the final days of the 2016 election. He could choose either "speak" or "conceal." He could reveal that the previously concluded investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails had been reopened. Or he could conceal it (while knowing that one of his own agents might leak the news).

And so I stared at "speak" and "conceal." Speak would be really bad. There's an election in 11 days, Lordy, that would be really bad. Concealing, in my view, would be catastrophic, not just to the FBI, but well beyond.

Comey's options were not equally bad, in his view. They were asymmetric. That's a useful concept in this era of asymmetric threats and asymmetric polarization and the asymmetry of the public utterances and actions of Comey himself during the presidential campaign. Conducting simultaneous investigations of rival presidential candidates, Comey broke department protocol to blab about the Democrat, while keeping mum about the Republican.   

Comey's actions influenced the election. They could even have been a decisive factor. So it's worth trying to understand his motivation. The disparate treatment inevitably led to speculation that Comey, a Republican, was helping the home team. But Comey had earned a reputation for integrity over many years; he was unlikely to become a naked partisan for the sake of Donald Trump. 

An April 22 report in the New York Times, based in part on interviews with Comey associates, probed the FBI director's mindset in targeting Clinton.

Former agents and others close to Mr. Comey acknowledge that his reproach was also intended to insulate the FBI from Republican criticism that it was too lenient toward a Democrat.

Conservative news outlets had already branded Mr. Comey a Clinton toady. That same week, the cover of National Review featured a story on “James Comey’s Dereliction,” and a cartoon of a hapless Mr. Comey shrugging as Mrs. Clinton smashed her laptop with a sledgehammer.

Congressional Republicans were preparing for years of hearings during a Clinton presidency. If Mr. Comey became the subject of those hearings, FBI officials feared, it would hobble the agency and harm its reputation. “I don’t think the organization would have survived that,” Mr. Steinbach said.

Through much of Barack Obama's presidency, Comey had watched Republican legislators manufacture scandals, vilify public officials and undermine institutions in their quest for political advantage.

William Taylor III, the lawyer for former Internal Revenue Service employee Lois Lerner, who is still being pursued by congressional Republicans for having scrutinized political organizations seeking tax-exempt status, said the "demagogues" on Capitol Hill have had a powerful effect. "It's difficult to be a public official these days," Taylor said in telephone interview. "There is no compunction on the part of some elected officials to accuse you of being partisan."

Republicans made unsupported allegations about the IRS, then used the mayhem they created to solicit funds. "My question isn't about who's going to resign," railed former Speaker John Boehner, "my question is who is going to jail over this scandal?"

In the end, no one went to jail because the scandal was largely a fraud. For Comey, it may have been a cautionary tale, as well. Republicans threatened to impeach IRS commissioner John Koskinen, even though he had arrived at the agency after the scandal. Comey was no doubt eager to avoid subjecting the FBI to similar calumny.

Of course, had Clinton won in November, there was also a good chance that Democrats would have won the Senate, enabling them to hound and harass Comey for his failure to match his disclosures about the Clinton investigation with disclosures about his investigation into Trump's Russia connections. But evidently Comey did not fear that.   

An anecdote about Harry Reid may help explain why. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Reid, then the Senate majority leader, accused GOP nominee Mitt Romney of not paying taxes. Reid had no proof; it was pure demagogy.

In a 2016 interview, Reid copped to the sleaze. He had wanted to promote a false narrative about Romney's taxes, he said. So he tried to get someone to make the fraudulent accusation. “I tried to get everybody to do that. I didn’t want to do that,” Reid said. “I went to everybody. But no one would do it.”

Liberal blogger Kevin Drum had a provocative analysis of Reid's dirty deed.

Can you imagine a similar situation on the right? Sean Hannity would have practically paid for the privilege. Rush Limbaugh would have happily spent an entire show on it. The Wall Street Journal edit page would have been all over it. Newt Gingrich would have pitched in. At least 20 or 30 members of the House would have been happy to do it. I bet Jim Inhofe would have given a speech in the well of the Senate in a heartbeat. Half a dozen Super PACs would have rushed to buy air time.

"But among liberals, zilch," Drum concluded.

Comey's asymmetric handling of the scandals may have been based on the peculiar circumstances of the particular investigations. But Comey had to be mindful of the widely disparate threats that each party posed to his agency and himself. In recent years, Republicans have become a well-oiled demagogy machine. Democrats, not so much.

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

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