The Future of Mr. Comey

Director Comey, before his latest two intrusions into the election. (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

With his ill-advised intrusions into this year’s election, FBI Director James Comey has already damaged U.S. interests and the fabric of American democracy more grievously than even Hillary Clinton’s harshest critics could contend that her email-policies have done.

Damaged, how? I made the long-term case a week ago, after Comey’s reckless announcement about the Anthony Weiner emails. The shorter-term case is evident right now: No one can ever know how the 2016 election would have turned out—in ultimate victor, in margin and “mandate,” in the way specific states go, in down-ballot and Congressional effects—had it not been for Comey’s decision to put himself in the middle of charge and counter-charge.

We can’t ever know, because some 40 million people have already voted. We can’t ever know, because his latest last-minute announcement comes too late to be fully digested by the time everyone else votes on election day.

I have no reason to believe that Director Comey was operating out of base motives. He probably thought he was doing the right thing for the right reasons. But he was mistaken, and the results were damaging—to the country, to the political process, to the FBI and the Department of Justice, and to Comey himself.

***

In the hyper-litigious current political realm, the usual next step would be hearings and investigations—hearings like those on the deaths at Benghazi, investigations like the endless ones on email. American public life at the moment is all too hearings-bound and criminalization-crazy. Hearings or investigations into whatever has happened at the FBI would not be worth it for anyone.

So what, instead?

  • Hillary Clinton, if she wins, should not fire Director Comey. If she cares about the norms of governing, as she should and presumably does, she would realize that this would inescapably look like revenge and a purge.

  • For similar reasons, Barack Obama, who appointed Comey to this job in the first place, should not fire him. FBI directors are given 10-year terms precisely to insulate them from politics. Obama should observe the letter of that apolitical norm, even if Comey himself has not.

  • But as soon as the election is over, Obama should make clear, bully-pulpit style, what Comey has done wrong, and why Comey has tarnished his bureau’s reputation, lost Obama’s trust, and forfeited the public’s deference to his judgment.

  • And then, sometime soon, Comey should resign. He shouldn’t be fired, but if he cares about his institution and its values, he should recognize that his continued presence is an unavoidable source of continued harm.

  • Plus, he is sure to get a lucrative follow-on job.

We’ve had enough hearings and investigations. But this was a big and damaging mistake.

No one should fire Director Comey, because a firing would damage governing norms. But in defense of those norms, Director Comey should resign.