James Comey Is No Hero

The former FBI director has a low opinion of the president who fired him, but his disregard for Justice Department rules helped put Trump in the White House to begin with.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

James Comey’s highly anticipated book, A Higher Loyalty, reportedly makes no secret of the disdain in which the former FBI director holds the president who fired him. Comey compares President Trump to a mob boss, calling him a liar living in a “cocoon of alternative reality” and a man who is “unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values.”

The most damning revelations in the published accounts of the memoir, however, are not Comey’s condemnations of Trump, but his disclosures of his own thinking when he made the decisions that helped put the current president in office.

In July of 2016, Comey held a press conference excoriating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for her handling of classified information, but announcing his decision to decline to prosecute her, said her actions were careless but inadvertent. Then, on October 28, 2016, days before the presidential election, Comey wrote a letter to Congress announcing publicly that the case was being reopened, a decision that experts have argued likely cost Clinton the election. At the same time that Comey was publicly discussing a federal investigation of Clinton, the FBI was investigating whether Trump’s campaign was aiding a Russian influence operation aimed at putting the real-estate mogul in office. Comey kept the latter secret. The investigation into Clinton found nothing new—the inquiry into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia is ongoing and has already led to  guilty pleas from several former Trump campaign officials.

Why did Comey make that decision? His book, A Higher Loyalty, will be released on Tuesday. But accounts of its contents and excerpts published by outlets that have obtained copies of the book make clear that he concedes that he believed Clinton was going to win. “It is entirely possible that, because I was making decisions in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president,” Comey wrote, “my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restarted investigation bore greater weight than it would have if the election appeared closer or if Donald Trump were ahead in all polls. But I don’t know.”

This is an astonishing admission. Justice Department guidelines bar officials from making important disclosures related to investigations close to elections to avoid influencing them. Comey took it upon himself to decide that, based on his concern that keeping the news confidential could call the legitimacy of a Clinton presidency into question, he had to announce that the investigation was being restarted. But that was not his decision to make; the role of the FBI is to investigate crimes, it is not to use its authority to protect or harm the legitimacy of a given politician. A hypothetical Clinton administration’s legitimacy should not have been a factor in Comey’s decision whatsoever; Comey should only have been concerned with following the Justice Department’s guidelines, which exist to protect the integrity of the democratic process, and which Comey followed in the case of the Republican candidate.

Perhaps, Comey defenders might argue, the sensitivity of the Russia inquiry as a counter-intelligence investigation prevented him from disclosing anything about it. But the point isn’t that the Russia investigation should have been disclosed, but that the Clinton inquiry should not have been. The fact that the Trump inquiry was kept under wraps while the Clinton inquiry was not simply accentuates the importance of the Justice Department rules against making such announcements close to an election—rules that Comey broke for one candidate but not for the other.

Comey’s admission that he believed Clinton would win is also dramatically at odds with Comey’s own sworn testimony before the Senate in May of 2017. “There was a great debate. I have a fabulous staff at all levels and one of my junior lawyers said, ‘Should you consider that what you’re about to do may help elect Donald Trump president?’” Comey said. “And I said, ‘Thank you for raising that, not for a moment because down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent institution in America. I can’t consider for a second whose political fortunes will be affected in what way.’” Now, Comey admits Clinton’s political fortunes were a factor in his decision, which means that by his own assessment, he personally put the FBI’s political independence at risk.

Comey’s explanation in a Higher Loyalty also makes little sense. If a potential Clinton administration’s legitimacy might be thrown into question by concealing the restarted investigation, why did Comey not have even greater concerns about a Trump administration, given the fact that the FBI believed that Trump’s campaign may have been drawing aid from a hostile foreign power, an allegation far more serious than mishandling of classified information?

The answer may lie in the political asymmetry I’ve been writing about for two years: The FBI is petrified of criticism from its conservative detractors, and is relatively indifferent to its liberal critics. Comey may have known that the Republican outrage over not disclosing the reopened Clinton investigation would dwarf whatever frustration Democrats might express at the opposite course of action, had he kept it under wraps as Justice Department guidelines obligated him to do. Indeed, despite the role Comey’s decision played in helping Trump win the White House, Republicans have spent the Trump administration demanding political purges of the FBI and prosecutions of the president’s critics and rivals. While Republicans bear the responsibility for attempting to politicize federal law enforcement, the Democrats’ feeble acquiescence to this dynamic has only enabled them.

That asymmetry is illustrated painfully in the parade of Democrats Comey trots out to reaffirm his decisions. According to Comey, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tearfully told the former FBI director, “You were in an impossible position”; former President Barack Obama told Comey “nothing—nothing—has happened in the last year to change my view” of Comey’s integrity;  Attorney General Loretta Lynch told him to “look beat up,” after a private meeting, implying that she agreed with his decision. The list of affirmations is Trump-like in its self-aggrandizement: For all Comey’s disdain for Trump, the former FBI director has a Trumpish tendency to talk up other people’s high opinions of him.

Comey has a long record of public service, and Trump has none to speak of more than a year into his presidency. Yet there’s another way in which the virtuous and forthright Comey resembles the degenerate and deceitful Trump. Both are the main characters in their own cinematic dramas, the heroes of their own great epic stories, a mindset that blinds each of them to the consequences of their actions on other people.

Comey cares a great deal about honor, and regards the president as dishonorable. But in 2016, Comey robbed the American people of the opportunity to fairly judge each candidate in the 2016 election. That would be the case even if Clinton had prevailed; that she lost simply dramatizes the consequences of his decision. He chose honor over duty, and the nation, the political process, and the independence of FBI all continue to suffer for it.

Trump fired Comey for self-interested reasons, an act that may amount to obstruction of justice. But by that point, Comey had proven himself unfit to hold his office.