‘A Disturbing Series of Events’: The Comey Aftermath

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Gary Cameron / Reuters

Ten days ago I argued that FBI Director James Comey had changed the dynamics of the 2016 election in an irreversible way, with his announcement of a new trove of potentially “relevant” emails on Anthony Weiner’s computers. After Comey’s “oh, never mind” followup yesterday, less than 48 hours before election day, I argued that his series of mis-judgments about the FBI’s proper role in electoral politics, and his apparent lack of control over the agency, meant that someone else should take his place. But it would be better all around, according to me, if Comey resigned sometime soon after the election, instead of forcing either the president who appointed him (Obama) or the next president in line (presumably Clinton) to fire him.

Readers disagree—most of them because they think Comey deserves harsher treatment, but some for the opposite reason. Here we go:

There is a silver lining. A reader in the tech industry says that the whole episode might have one positive result:

It should put to rest the storyline that Clinton obstructed justice by destroying damaging emails. This previously unknown cache of unscreened email yielded no evidence of criminality, thus undermining the argument that Clinton’s emails were sanitized.  


‘Egregious error.’ From a lawyer on the East Coast:

I disagree with your conclusion that Clinton, if she wins, should not fire Comey (or demand his resignation, which amounts to the same thing).  Yes, to some people, particularly the Trump supporters, this might look like revenge. And certainly, GOP elected officials will take the opportunity to make the same claim. But those people are incorrigible, and trying to appease them or seek their approval is a no-win situation.

The fact is that pretty much everyone, including Republicans, agree that Comey made an egregious error in judgment. Can you think of any other post-Hoover FBI Director who has made such a significant public mistake?  But for the twisted political environment we’re in, that alone should be grounds for firing. Assuming that Comey stumbled innocently with his original letter a week and a half ago, he should, within 48 hours, have issued a clarification intended to remove any unintended implications. That he waited in silence until now compounded his error.

In addition, it appears to be that Comey has, as a number of commentators put it, lost control of his agency. Again, this should be grounds for termination, and Clinton should bring in a new director to clean house and impose some real discipline on the agency. That some agents are intervening in the political process by leaking information is inexcusable.

I note that, when first elected, Obama chose not to pursue criminal actions against any members of the Bush Administration, even though there likely were sufficient grounds to do so. The reason was that Obama feared that the partisan reaction to prosecuting would have poisoned the well and eliminated any chance of the GOP working with him on his legislative agenda. Of course, as we now know, the GOP refused to cooperate anyway. (In addition, Obama chose not to seek indictments because he was loathe to create the apparent precedent of prosecuting the prior administration. IN this regard, he showed prudent, long-range thinking.)


Investigations would be good, not bad. Another reader wanting a tougher line:

Respectfully, I think you’re way off base here. First, you summarily conclude that “hearings or investigations into whatever has happened at the FBI would not be worth it for anyone.”

The problem here is that an investigation into whatever happened at the FBI is not simply a matter of punishing the director for his error/malfeasance, but actually investigating a disturbing series of events at the nation’s national largest law enforcement agency. It wasn’t just Comey. Credible reports indicate that (1) Comey acted in part because he knew an anti-Clinton faction at the FBI would leak it first; and (2) that there is a rogue faction at the FBI that was pushing against FBI and DOJ orders to investigate a public candidate for office and to leak damaging information and innuendo at a critical time in the election season. At the very least, the director is unable to control his bureau. What happened absolutely needs to be investigated, and whatever bad actors responsible need to be rooted out. If there is a larger cultural problem at the FBI, that needs to be exposed and fixed.

Otherwise, this will continue. And not just in elections. What if this faction decides to investigate members of the Clinton administration, and leak personal information to the press? How can President Clinton or her AG trust the FBI, if they suspect the FBI will leak critical information? Just because Republicans have abused their investigative powers does not mean there isn’t a real value to them.

Second, you recognize that Comey cannot continue at the FBI, but you argue that neither Clinton nor Obama should fire him, because that would appear too political, and the FBI director’s 10-year term is supposed to insulate the FBI from political pressure.

Well, that ship sailed. Maybe the 10-year term was supposed to insulate Comey from political pressure, but it clearly did not. The president also possesses the authority to fire the director, presumably in situations where politics be damned, the director cannot continue in his job. This is just one situation, as you yourself recognize.

Third, if firing Comey would be too political, how is it any better for Obama to publicly castigate him and pressure him to resign?

Fourth, you’re judging the Democrats by a double standard. Comey can interfere in a general election in violation of both agency policy and arguably a statute (the Hatch Act), but he cannot be punished by the president, even when a statute specifically authorizes the president to fire him? If the president fires him, it is Comey who made the U.S. look like a banana republic, not the president.


‘A kind of coup.’ A reader who identifies himself as a disabled Vietnam veteran sends a copy of his open letter to the president:

President Obama:

In my view, a Special Prosecutor should be created to investigate the FBI.

It would appear that an FBI  in-house group of Republican political operatives staged a kind of coup and created a serious political crisis on the eve of the 2016 election.  They did it deliberately and with the clear intent of affecting the election.  Whether Director Comey knew about it or not is irrelevant (I suspect he did).  The constitutional implications of this act are fundamental to the sanctity of our government.  Nothing less.

Not since Gore/Bush in 2000 has a presidential election been so blatantly tampered with. It remains to be seen how the election will come out, but there is no doubt that the so-called “FBI letter” put a serious dent in Clinton’s sizable lead. According to Nate Silver (who I consider the most reliable source), her lead dropped from roughly 10 points to roughly 4 points. The actions of the FBI, including Comey, had a clear effect. [JF note: the Silver/538 model, which rated Trump’s chances lower than some other sources during the primaries, has consistently rated them higher than most others during the general election campaign. When the results are all in, the polling experts can figure out which approach worked out best in this extraordinary year.]

This is a gravely serious threat the security of the U. S. government and should be seen as such.  We all have been pointed to the Russians, when all along the real tampering has come, once again, from our own Republican Party. Please take swift and strong action to expose this national security threat.


On the other hand. Another reader with a military background says that Comey took a difficult but unavoidable step:

I live in Maryland and am strongly supporting Clinton. However, I have friends and family who are adamant Trump supporters and who, with justification, believe the Clintons are not forthcoming about their dubious behavior, an issue that is hard to refute!

They believe the system is rigged. Had Comey not come out with his announcements prior to the election and had there been evidence of Clinton misconduct, what would have the reaction? Total belief on the part of Trump and his base that the system had been rigged—that the FBI held evidence back that would have elected Trump—confirming exactly what Trump had been saying!

Comey inoculated the country from that disaster!  And it would have been a disaster!

Do you disagree that had Comey withheld the fact that he had more emails  and it turned out that they contained inappropriate behavior by Secretary Clinton, that would have sparked widespread outrage, and right so!  The fairness and legitimacy of the election would be challenged by the 48 percent of Americans who were Trump voters .

Frankly, I do not believe that the Washington media has little, if any, understanding of the Trump supporters! Frankly, I am stunned by them, I disagree strongly with them, but they are not stupid; they are concerned about the country.  I had hope that your flight across the country would have provided some insight to the divisions of the country and the unfortunate passion with which those divisions are held.

To address this central part of the final reader’s argument: “The fairness and legitimacy of the election would be challenged by the 48 percent of Americans who were Trump voters.” First, he’s not going to get close to 48 percent of the vote. Even if he did, what I’ve seen convinces me that most or all of his real base would believe there was “an email problem” regardless of anything Director Comey ever said.

The email “scandal” is a very peculiar one. Hillary Clinton made a significant mistake in setting up the system to begin with, and for being so grudging about recognizing that. But as far as I can tell, it’s a mistake whose main victim is herself. I’m not aware of anyone demonstrating or even claiming specific harm to the national interest because of her email practices. Yet people who chant “lock her up” usually start with this on the bill of particulars.


Clinton should “go high” by keeping Comey. Here’s another reader with a somewhat sympathetic view of the FBI director (previous readers along those lines here):

Yes, Comey should resign, but I’m not sure that his resignation should be accepted. His sin—being obsessed with his reputation—is one of which the Founders (George Washington above all), not to mention all modern politicians, have been guilty. And many if not most of them typically go about tending to their reputations in far less salubrious ways than he has.

Justin Dillon is right: The original decision and announcement not to prosecute Clinton should have been made by AG Lynch and her lieutenants. That way anyone who believed that a Democratic AG had made a partisan decision to decline to prosecute her party’s nominee could have expressed their displeasure at the ballot box in November. We don’t know whether Comey tried to pass the buck to Lynch (as he should have), but if he did, it seems likely that such an attempt would have been rejected.

Instead, the FBI—and Comey personally, with his reputation for probity—were used as a kind of heat shield, like the protective layer which, with one tragic exception, kept the space shuttle astronauts safe during their re-entry into the atmosphere. Then the late-breaking emergence of the Wiener emails put Comey on an even nastier spot, especially with the “fifth column” of troglodytes in the Bureau that Wayne Barrett has described (thank you very much for that link) itching to inflict far greater damage on his reputation (a cover-up!) by leaking their preferred version of the story.

If Clinton and the country manage to survive Comey’s horribly clumsy attempt to salvage what remained of his reputation, refusing to accept his resignation would give her and her party a very visible opportunity to “go high.” She and they would undoubtedly be accused of rewarding Comey for his last-minute announcement re-exonerating her. However, these are career politicians and partisan operatives, and being criticized unfairly is a baked-in part of the gig that they signed up for.


Fix the (metaphorical) bayonets. From a reader who starts out agreeing with me that no one should fire Comey:

I think I agree with you on this. From a purely cerebral analysis, I’m sure I do. But all this norm smashing—as we’ve all been discussing for months—isn’t going to end just because Trump loses. Indeed, the Republican elected officials are going to be driven by a political constituency driven to madness to act in an increasingly undemocratic fashion during the Clinton II Presidency.

So, as you say, the Democrats have two choices. They can resist the (reasonable) impulse to act in kind, playing the adult in the room while the Republican burn down the house around them. Or they can—at least selectively—fight fire with fire and step outside the previously accepted norms of behavior in order to thwart at least some of the craziest Republican actions.

We already know we’ll be facing problems with appointments (not just judicial, don’t kid yourself), appropriations legislation, and perhaps most ominous of all, a renewed debt ceiling fight led by the most nihilistic politicians in recent memory.

I’m not sure which course I favor. I’d like to at least be proud of our actions, but there’s no doubt that American small-d democracy is in peril, and maybe it’s time to fix bayonets ...

I know from context that he means the last line metaphorically.

Read; think; vote.