What Comey Did Wrong

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

As mentioned last week, I’m nostalgically trying to piece together some elements of the olden-days blogging culture in the current, very different online environment.

Today’s installment: A long note from a reader working through why he has changed his mind about Comey’s Choice™—former FBI Director James Comey’s decision to ignore the practice of his predecessors and comment openly about the investigative status of candidates during an election.

The reader begins about the overall process of collaborative thinking-out-loud:

I confess to using [emails to me and other writers] as a foil against which to flesh out my thoughts and ideas. I hope it hasn't been an irritating distraction. It's certainly helped me. I'm at least hoping that the elaboration of my own denseness has helped you to understand how much (or little) of the media's message is being absorbed and understood by people in the general population who think about it.

In that spirit, I just listened to the Colbert-Comey interview; I'd listened to the Maddow interview, and read summaries of a couple of others. [Update: I recommend listening to Michael Barbaro’s 42-minute interview with Comey on the NYT podcast The Daily, which goes into many of the questions the reader raises.] And I was about to sit down and ask you an honest question: Why was Comey's decisions to make public pronouncements about Clinton's e-mails wrong? The case he states makes sense, especially given the impossible consequences of going in either direction.

I've seen your many tweets challenging both the decision and the media handling of it. But his case still is highly persuasive. He was facing, in his statement, a Hobson's choice between tainting an election, or tainting a presidency, depending upon the outcome, given his perception that the independence of Justice (Loretta Lynch) being questioned.

And then, amidst my shower this morning, I got it. And I want to share it with you because, honestly, I haven't seen, or perhaps more accurately, been able to pull out of the mishmash of facts and events, a clear explication of why what he did was wrong.

It was a question Colbert asked, came back to, and then drove home the point: The policy of announcing the results of investigations, an established norm, was violated when Comey took it upon himself to go public, and kept the decision from the Justice Department until it was too late for them to do anything about it. He violated a norm.


Norms are the accumulated wisdom of all of those who have come before. No individual or group in the heat of a present moment, can know the consequences of a decision, either in terms of present politics or future course of events.

And so, in HUMBLE recognition of our immediate inability to predict the future, we agree to an accepted course of conduct.

We do this for a variety of reasons, depending upon the norm. In the case of this norm, it is an external rule—imposed from outside the current deliberative process—that assures the objectivity and independence of the decision, separate from possible subjective influences.

Stated another way, "We will do this the same way, in all circumstances, consequences be damned, in order to assure that no one will be able to question our non-bias or our motives, and what happens in elections will not affect, nor improperly be affected by, how we handle an investigation." Not disclosing information relevant to an election is a Justice norm.

In this case, despite the norm, Comey took it upon himself to weigh the consequences of going one way or the other—i.e., to use his subjective judgment to predict the future of how one decision or the other would affect the legitimacy of the election and the coming presidency.

He saw himself as wiser than the norm. And as is painfully obvious, he completely failed either correctly to predict the future, or to see the myriad of intended and unintended consequences he engendered (e.g., not correspondingly announcing the investigation of Trump seriously biased the electoral process- not an outcome he intended, but an actual, factual bias that the norm was intended to prevent.)

And in making that judgment, he relied upon what was happening in the electoral process—specifically, the tropes being pushed by the right-wing media machine questioning Clinton's legitimacy. And he calculated electoral consequences. In a very direct, substantive way, Comey allowed what was happening in the election to taint how the investigation was being handled.


And this, finally, drives home for me the significance of Comey's hubris. I've never quite understood the hubris charge, except as an ad hominem by partisans. But here we have a concrete example of that hubris: He rejects the humility which enshrines the norm—our inability to know or predict all active factors in a decision—and superimposes his higher judgment. And in none of his interviews has he copped to this, other than to note that a reasonable person could have made a different decision. The hubris, and lack of self-reflection, continues. And the results reinforce in a graphic way the importance of norms.

If Comey had kept quiet; if things had been allowed to play out untainted by information about FBI investigations, Trump may still have been elected. Or, on the other hand, the legitimacy of President Clinton would have been questioned. Lynch's credibility and integrity may have been challenged. But the FBI and Justice's processes would nevertheless have followed norms, and would have been much less open to challenge. And the facts being discussed in that event would have been far more relevant and far less damaging to the justice system than what we are going through today. And, most pointedly, by driving Comey to do what he did, the right-wing media tropes swayed Justice, and likely got Trump elected.

This is the thing that I haven't really seen discussed in a direct, pithy, graspable way. Perhaps it's been there and my denseness has only now thinned. But it's been way too easy for him, and others, to slither away from this direct indictment of the integrity of his actions.

I agree with the way the reader states the issue, and about the consequences of Comey’s decision, and about the point he has so far not addressed in his public appearances.