James Comey loves the spotlight. After a while, the spotlight does not love him back.
That’s because, in the harsh glare of the spotlight, you begin to see something unfortunate. You begin to see that it has never been enough for Comey to strive to be fair and honest and ethical, the guideposts by which he has lived his public life. You begin to see that his Achilles heel, his Kryptonite, is that he needs to see that image of himself reflected back to him by others, that he needs to be recognized by others to be fair and just and ethical.
It is that distinction, that excessive concern for reputation, that represents Comey’s fatal vanity and primary professional flaw. And unfortunately, that flaw in an otherwise good man helped to change the outcome of a presidential campaign and with it the course of American history.
For me, the first clear explanation of that weakness came a year ago, in Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Contrary to standard Justice Department practice, Comey had taken it upon himself, as FBI director, to decide whether Hillary Clinton should be prosecuted for using a private email server that occasionally handled classified material.
Contrary to standard practice, Comey had also used a highly dramatic public setting to explain his decision not to prosecute. And contrary to practice, policy and function, Comey used that public occasion to go well beyond questions of criminal liability within his purview to harshly criticize Clinton for what he called her “extremely careless” handling of classified material.
In the Senate committee, Chairman Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, asked Comey whether he had developed any second thoughts about how he had handled that situation.
“Honestly, no,” Comey told the committee. “It caused a whole lot of personal pain for me but as I look back, given what I knew at the time and even what I’ve learned since, I think it was the best way to try to protect the justice institution, including the FBI…. I had to do something separately to protect the credibility of the investigation, which meant both the FBI and the Justice Department.”
I understood Comey’s concern, then and now. It is important that the FBI and Justice Department be seen as politically impartial, so that the American public can have faith in their work and their independence. In fact, that is one of the most worrisome aspects of Donald Trump’s ceaseless efforts to publicly intimidate those agencies into serving his own narrow political and personal interests. When those agencies take actions that are seemingly responsive to Trump, such as the firing of Andrew McCabe, those actions are perceived as tainted even when they might be totally justified.
In Clinton’s case, it was the FBI’s responsibility to thoroughly investigate potential crime, and to close the books if no such crime was found. If that decision brought partisan criticism upon the agency, then the FBI as big boys and big girls had to ride that out. No federal law, no FBI guidebook or policy manual, gives the agency or its director the authority to try to soften that criticism by publicly passing judgment on what it has already deemed non-criminal behavior.
Yet that’s exactly what Comey did, impugning a presidential candidate in the midst of a hard-fought campaign in hopes of appearing balanced.
More recently, in his interview over the weekend with George Stephanopoulus, Comey returns over and over again, obsessively, to his concern that the FBI and the Department of Justice be perceived as fair. He acted as he did “to protect the institutions,” he says. “If I’d done the normal thing, … the institutions would’ve been damaged …. this is my obligation, to protect the FBI and the Justice Department.”
“When you’re in the business of running a Justice Department institution, what people think matters. Public faith and confidence is everything to the Justice Department … faith and confidence of the American people in the Department of Justice and the FBI are at the core of those organizations. If they’re not believed to be honest, independent and competent, they’re done.”
In Comey’s mind, that also explains and justifies his decision to announce the reopening of the Clinton investigation just days before Election Day, for what turned out to be bogus reasons. As he told Stephanopoulus, he knew at the time that “speaking is going to have some impact, potentially. But concealing is going to destroy the institutions that I love.”
“If you conceal the fact that you have restarted the Hillary Clinton email investigation, not in some silly way but in a very, very important way that may lead to a different conclusion, what will happen to the institutions of justice when that comes out?,” he asked. “Especially, given the world we’re operating in, when Hillary Clinton’s elected president? She’ll be an illegitimate president, but these organizations will never recover from that.”
Nowhere in those comments does Comey even hint at understanding that in supposedly trying to protect the reputation of the FBI and Justice Department, and later in trying to protect the legitimacy of Clinton’s presumed presidency, he was primarily protecting his own reputation, his own self-image. But that’s exactly what was happening. He became so caught up in ensuring that no one thought Jim Comey vulnerable to partisan pressure that he became extremely vulnerable to partisan pressure.
From that, a tragic series of misjudgments and consequences have flowed.