Sympathy for Comey

FBI Director James Comey testifying on Capitol Hill before the House Oversight Committee on July 7 to explain his agency’s recommendation to not prosecute Hillary Clinton. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Fallows is swamped at the moment, partly to finish a cover story for our upcoming issue, so he passed along a ton of reader email with permission to post. (Thanks to everyone who has written him, as well as the general hello@ account, and we’re trying to post as many of the best emails as we can before Election Day.)

To start us off, a few readers find that the FBI director was put in a very difficult position following his agency’s July announcement that it would not recommend charges to the Justice Department against Clinton for her “extremely careless” use of emails. Comey was then lambasted in public before the House Oversight Committee and increasingly invoked in Trump’s pernicious “rigged” rhetoric on the campaign trail. This Fox News clip is a taste of things as they got started in July:

A reader suggests that Trump won by getting into Comey’s head:

It seems to me that the unfortunate way that Comey handled this situation was definitely a very clear-cut case of “working the refs.” Trump and his campaign have pushed so hard on the idea that everything is rigged—including the FBI—that when these potentially new emails came up, Comey lost his backbone and decided to cover his ass and show The Republicans that he was not rigged. Sort of like a make-up call in a big game.

It is an indictment of our current state of affairs in regards to normalizing Trump that despite the widespread pushback on Trump’s “rigged” talk, it still was not discredited outright enough by EVERYONE. If we had a normal candidate who accepted the system, then Comey would not have been feeling the pressure to prove he was not “rigged,” and he would have followed the 60-day tradition that has been in place for decades even if it meant taking some heat about it down the line.

This next reader has outright sympathy for Comey—pity even, given his apparent weakness in the face of Trumpism:

Fallows makes a number of good points in his thoughtful piece on falling norms. My problem here is that one of the “norms” that has fallen is “equal justice” under the law in this country. The real tragedy here for Comey and the country is the fact that he gave Mrs. Clinton a pass when it is obvious that she violated several laws [or at least federal records rules, which—speaking of the erosion of norms—started to be chipped away by Clinton’s predecessor, Colin Powell]. The idea that she should not have been prosecuted is not credible and polls of the American people make that clear. Opinion writers like Fallows seem to ignore this fact, which is why there is the current situation.

I feel bad for Mr. Comey, but he should have done the right thing in the first place.

Update from a reader who rebuts a sentence above:

“The idea that [Clinton] should not have been prosecuted is not credible and polls of the American people make that clear.” This is, in fact, the problem itself. In a society governed by law, you have to accept the verdict of law. You can criticize it and rail against it, push for legal reforms, but you should not and cannot question its legitimacy itself (one more norm broken).

In this case, if Comey (a Republican) reviewed all evidence and decided that there was not enough to prosecute, our “feelings” and “polls of American people” (unfortunately) don’t matter. A similar parallel is Black Lives Matter, where unless a verdict that is acceptable to the activists is not reached, the jury is racist and the system is corrupt. A more thoughtful viewpoint is that in view of the facts presented, the jury could not / did not reach a “guilty” verdict.

For Comey’s part, according to officials close to him, he felt both a sense of obligation to Congress and “a concern that word of the new email discovery would leak to the media and raise questions of a coverup”—though not as much “raise questions” as throw fuel on the Trump dumpster fire already raging for weeks.

This next reader, a lawyer in L.A., while no apparent fan of Trump, points a finger at the Clintons and their deep establishmentarianism:

As far as Comey, the entire process was politicized, and I suspect a careful review of the government’s prosecution history for these offenses will show that Clinton was the only one who was not prosecuted for her security breach. A FOIA request could show that. One can be a Democrat, and all that, or simply despise Trump for being the unaccomplished heir that he is, but can one really argue that Billary do not enjoy unprecedented treatment from their capture of the Democratic Party, or that the capture did not lead to her nomination and the FBI’s decision not to prosecute?

Another lawyer, on the other hand, blasts Comey:

If there is no warrant to look at the emails, does that not mean that the FBI has not yet been able to articulate, even to the threshold of making a rational connection, that these new emails are connected to an offense? So the FBI is not yet in a position to make an argument to a judge, but the agency’s director is prepared to go straight to the public, 11 days before an election?

I am just a Canadian criminal prosecutor. We Canadians are not always the brightest bulbs, so I’m probably missing something. But I don’t quite understand why people don’t instantly see how outrageous this all is. I fear that you Americans are headed for a very dark place.

Buckle up, buckaroos. Here’s one more reader with some understanding of the difficult position the FBI director found himself in:

I’m far from an insider, but Comey from afar seemed to have a Boy Scout moment. My sense is he’s a complete man of the system, and as Jonathan Haidt showed, being responsible is a core value to conservatives. He felt a load of pressure, self imagined, and probably had a mini moral crisis. He’s probably, if not a hack, a life-long bureaucrat, who serves at others’ disposal and lacks a real sense of judgment or sense of psychology. It’s like the Book of Judges: In modern America, a random Republican in power will elect himself to steal the election—if not the Supreme Court, the head of the FBI.

I feel a sense of jaw-dropping dread, and Trump is going to play up the inevitability as charismatics do, and people are going to forget his idiocy and thuggishness. But logic—like that of Sam Wang at Princeton Election Consortium and the fact that there will be pushback for the monkeys in the middle to consider—leads me to believe that unless something really big comes up, Clinton will squeeze by. The likely worse outcome is that this will spur talk of impeachment and the illegitimacy of a Clinton regime.

This next reader raises an intriguing contrast between Comey and Gonzalo Curiel, the judge presiding over the Trump University case:

I find it interesting that Curiel chose to delay the trial until after the election so as not to influence it, and, I’m assuming, for there to be less potential influence on the integrity of the trial itself. I also find it interesting that it is the very same judge who Trump has lambasted in the media and accused of not being able to judge him fairly due to his race [and Curiel’s parents’ Mexican heritage]. Trump said Curiel should recuse himself or be removed from the case. I would have been delighted to see Trump on trial mid-election, but I felt wholeheartedly it was the correct decision, even though it very clearly benefits Trump.

Then, in stark contrast, we have Comey. His decision to release the statement saying there are new emails is bizarre and lacks logic. It seems to me there are two choices he has once he finds out about the emails, but both hinge on knowing what’s in the emails. The newest reports are saying the FBI had these for weeks prior to Comey’s bombshell. I just don’t understand how you don’t look at the emails or seek approval to look at the emails (via warrant) until 11 days before Election Day. His two choices should have been the following:

  • If he releases the statement, it is because there is new information that may or will result in prosecution. It’s pertinent information for voters to consider, so it should be released no matter the influence on the election, although precedent and policy seem to say this wouldn’t necessarily be enough justification to release the statement. But I at least could see why he felt an overwhelming need to make the statement.

  • If there’s no new information in the emails, then wait to release the statement until after the election. Wait to notify Congress because there’s no new info in the emails and any disclosure could sway the election unfairly.

Just as a side note, in an election that saw a number of firsts regarding mentions of sexual acts, parts, abuse, etc, this new email situation arose because of Wiener and his penis pictures. God help us.

“Arose,” ugh. Update from a reader, Kevin:

Let me posit two other possibilities behind Comey’s decision. First is that he is a supremely calculating bureaucrat, adept at self-preservation even if administratively incompetent. Given his failure to recommend action against candidate Clinton last July, Comey must know that his position as FBI director would be toast if Donald Trump, who had criticized him so bitterly, were to be elected. So Comey did Trump a solid based on no information. This explanation assumes that Comey is so naive as to believe that Trump holds any value to mutuality in any relationship—a position unsupported by the man’s history.

Comey must also have calculated that if Clinton were elected and fired him, it would certainly be considered grounds for impeachment by the atavistic GOP. Job insurance, Mafia-style.

The other explanation, which I favor most, is that Comey really is an adult Boy Scout and values his own reputation above all. But when does a fetish for reputation become ruinous? When it devolves into egoism and harms the long-term common good. Comey confused a tactical buttressing of his reputation for his position in history, which I cannot believe is going to be favorable.

You might ask your colleague Fallows about a great decision by an American president who sacrificed his reputation for the long-term good. In 1979, Jimmy Carter appointed Paul Volcker as his Federal Reserve Board chair with an explicit mandate to tame inflation by any means necessary. Volcker’s extreme tight-money policies caused a sharp and prolonged recession and high unemployment—but it did bring inflation down (the collapse of OPEC unity did help as well). Carter’s replacement, the perennially overrated and intrinsically dishonest Ronald Reagan, trashed Carter, blaming him for the unemployment (but taking credit of course for the slashing of inflation).

Carter’s reputation—as a president, if not as a human being—has never really recovered. But it is undeniable that he set the course for several decades’ worth of a sustainable economy. Comey’s egoism and short-termism may just have set the course for a constitutional dark age in this country.


Zooming out a bit from the Comey controversy, several more readers offer insight and supplemental reading on the broader themes of American politics that Fallows explored in “James Comey and the Destruction of Norms.” He called this email from a reader “well argued” when he passed it along to me:

The word “norms” is a squishy word; it sounds like an abbreviation of normal, mixed in with resonances of a first name shouted at someone who walks into the bar in Cheers. It lacks any immediate sense of purpose or consequence, almost as if it merely applied to manners or political correctness. It’s one thing for you to say that norms are important to democracy, but just saying that doesn’t communicate an understanding of why or how important they are.

Norms are structural. They create the framework within which we operate. They define up and down, and left and right. They establish what is good behavior and bad behavior. And they are absolutely necessary for democratic institutions to function. They are understood and honored because people recognize the dire consequences of violating them.

Deadlines are governed by the clock—unless someone cynically stops the clock to keep the deadline from passing. The Senate operates on majority rule—unless one party, routinely employing the filibuster, decides that it doesn’t. The Constitution requires advice and consent on appointments—unless one party, in a naked exercise of raw power, decides that it doesn’t. And if one party can make that decision, what’s the point of having a Constitution?

Norms are enforced by the community, not by law. In government they are enforced by the political parties and, ideally, the press. But the Republican party, as you pointed out, has been breaching norms for some time. A party responsible for the functioning of the Constitution has been undermining the very norms it is charged to uphold. And when half of the community fails to enforce norms, then, by definition, the norms are gone—unless the press clearly and loudly points out that the norms are not being enforced.  And, except in some small pockets of the press world, that hasn’t happened.

And this is the most significant press failure. By false equivalence, and the moral relativism of “he said and the other guy said,” without reference to the non-normative behavior of one of the parties, the press has allowed norms to be washed away like a sand castle at high tide. Norms are made out of sand—they are illusory—because they’re only effective if the parties share in, and enforce, the illusion. And our institutions, indeed our democracy, cannot function without them.

Republicans have established new norms for a party out of presidential power. If the Democrats take up those norms should they lose the White House, we well never, ever, be able to function. And we will have Trumpism incarnate: He or she who can wield raw power, without consideration of norms, will prevail. And the American people will be the last consideration on the table.

This next reader looks to the intellectual forefather of American conservatism, Edmund Burke, whose lessons seem completely lost on Republicans these days—not to mention completely shredded by Donald Trump. His disdain for political norms and institutions during this election should give contemporary liberals more appreciation for Burke, a philosopher they might have ignored otherwise:

Your discussion of the importance of norms in government reminded me of a comment on the French revolutionaries (so similar in many ways to Donald Trump) by Edmund Burke, on whom I did my M.A. thesis. About their inclination to transgressive behavior, Burke wrote:

Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.  It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

For most of us, most of the time, that “controlling power” involves our internalization of norms that support civil society—exactly the norms whose wholesale violation you have chronicled. What Burke is saying is that when those norms are discarded, society will have to fall back on enforced external controls, turning custom into law and regulation, if it is to survive. By discarding the norms we have voluntarily observed, we will bring ourselves under forceful compulsion. Our passions will have forged our fetters.

Another reader looks to a classic book by a classical liberal:

Over the past week I have been rereading de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. In it he emphasizes the importance of custom in regulating a democracy. Trash the norms and you begin the process of destroying our experiment in responsible self-rule. I don’t know if James Comey was acting as a partisan hack, covering his ass, or just being stupid, but he should be made to pay for the damage he has done. This election is simply awful and he has just made it that much more so.

Another reader looks to literature:

Whatever HRC has done, she’s still more trustworthy, intelligent, and competent than Trump, but for the past 20 or so years of teaching The Great Gatsby, I keep seeing the Clintons in Nick Carraway’s summation, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy, they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

And another introduces a new book:

I’m sure you are getting enough junk traffic on stuff like this. So, a link:

Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg’s latest book Toward Democracy lays out a distinctive vision of democracy—one that stresses not institutions or practices, but what he calls “an ethical ideal.” The essence of democracy isn’t one man, one vote. It isn’t majority rule. And it isn’t the principle of political representation. Rather, it lies in the combination of individual autonomy and an “ethic of reciprocity.” In other words, a willingness to think in other people’s shoes and act accordingly, a political version of the golden rule. If such ideals seem practically utopian in today’s climate, for Kloppenberg that is an indication of just how badly democracy has lost its way.

Another reader teaches us a new word:

An alternative explanation of the Trump campaign has kept urging itself forward to me. It requires a little background for some.

Ethnomethodology is a part of sociology that purports to be theory-free, or at least theory-neutral, concerned with identifying rules within a social group rather than figuring out what model the group fits. One of the research methods for ethnomethodologists is a breaching study, in which the researchers identify important norms in a group by participating in the group and systematically violating various observed norms. The responses of the group members to the breaches reveal the importance of the norms.

Is it possible that the entire Republican presidential campaign has been an ethnomethodology research project? How else do we explain the unprecedented series of breached norms (as you have noted in your Time Capsules)?

This reader digs up another time capsule of sorts:

In a letter to Joshua Speed dated August 24, 1855, Abraham Lincoln famously wrote:

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring that “all men are created equal”. We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be take pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

That’s quoted on page 39 in Lincoln’s Virtues, by William Lee Miller. On page 90, Miller observes:

As president he would display charity in many ways, and sometimes give expression to it in religious themes. He would show magnanimity to rivals and critics, mercy to the accused, patience with insolent generals, eloquent sympathy to the bereaved, generosity to associates and subordinates, nonvindictiveness to enemies. He would explicitly disavow planting thorns, malicious dealing, holding grudges.

Two human beings more different than Lincoln and Trump can scarcely be imagined. Our current “progress in degeneracy” is indeed pretty rapid.

Lastly, a reader in Vermont tries to end on an optimistic note:

Thank you to Fallows for his reports from across the country showing how people are making things work. The professional dog-biter circus that goes for national politics needs to be documented, but it gets to be a bit much after a while. Whether or not it is true, at this point it is not that hard to believe that a major force in this campaign is that Trump was honey-trapped by the Russians. As it is, both Trump and the Russians would enjoy fouling the bed of American politics. They are both intent on profiting from a bitter, divided America.

Let’s hope the country survives this week.