James Comey’s ‘Duty of Candor’ Was His Undoing

The former FBI director’s commitment to transparency is a hallmark of his career—for better or worse.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

“The Department of Justice,” James Comey explained on Thursday evening, “has a duty of candor to the courts and to Congress.”

The former FBI director was talking about William Barr and the “less than honorable” way that Comey believes the attorney general described Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report—in Barr’s summary letter to Congress, during the press conference he held before releasing the redacted document to the public, and in a Senate hearing afterward. “His testimony was not candid,” Comey said.

Comey has as many detractors as, and possibly more than, Barr does, but credibly accusing him of not being candid is hard. Indeed, Comey’s steadfast commitment to “a duty of candor” explains a lot about his rocky career in public life, both where he went right and where he arguably went wrong. For better or worse, he’s rarely been silent, and rarely evasive. That combination has helped shape public perception not only about his time at the Justice Department, but also about his post-FBI career as a Donald Trump gadfly.

On Thursday, Comey addressed a national audience at his own CNN town hall—or at least the couple million viewers, apparently including President Trump, who haven’t gotten tired of hearing from him in recent months. Two years after the president fired him, Comey has been just about everywhere: writing in the pages of The New York Times, appearing on CBS This Morning, joking about running for president, posting contemplative (and in some cases, inscrutable) photos on Twitter. His town hall, a venue typically reserved for presidential candidates, was actually his second solo session on CNN in a little more than a year—the network gave him an hour to hawk the initial release of his book, and another one timed to this week’s debut of the paperback version.

Comey’s ubiquity stands in stark contrast to Mueller, whose resolute commitment to silence lasted, perhaps to a fault, for the entirety of his two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether Trump had obstructed justice by trying to thwart his probe. While Mueller’s position has clearly been to let his work do the talking, Comey’s career has been defined by moments in which he has chosen to speak up, either in public or in private.

It seems a lifetime ago now, but the formative moment in Comey’s time as a public figure occurred a decade before he was fired as FBI director, nearly to the day. That was the day he gave riveting testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about his role in an episode in which he resisted, verbally and, in a way, physically, an attempt by the George W. Bush White House to persuade an ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft to certify the legality of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. Hospitalized for pancreatitis, Ashcroft had transferred his powers as attorney general to Comey, his deputy, who refused to recertify the program ahead of a swiftly approaching deadline. Bush was adamant that the program continue, so he dispatched his chief of staff, Andrew Card, and the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, to get Ashcroft’s signature instead. At first hesitantly, then dramatically, Comey recounted how he had rushed to the hospital— “I got out of the car and literally ran up the stairs”—and stood sentry with Ashcroft’s wife, waiting for the Bush aides to arrive.

Ashcroft was barely lucid. When Card and Gonzales showed up, Comey told the committee, Ashcroft “stunned” him by fully backing Comey on the substance and deferring to him as the acting chief of the Justice Department. “There is the attorney general,” Ashcroft said, pointing at Comey. When Bush reauthorized the program anyway the next day, despite lacking certification from the Justice Department, Comey prepared a resignation letter, along with, in his telling, then–FBI Director Robert Mueller and several other senior Justice Department officials. Bush backed down.

The comparisons to a Hollywood movie were inescapable—not only the inherent drama of the climactic hospital-room confrontation, but Comey’s sober but jaw-dropping retelling of it. A star was born. Here was Mr. Comey Goes to Washington, a humble public servant heroically standing up to political pressure and upholding the rule of law. “I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man,” Comey told the Senate.

That testimony set the stage for all that was to follow. It established Comey’s reputation as a Republican who would confront his own party, culminating in a Democratic president, Barack Obama, naming him to succeed Mueller as FBI director in 2013. And though it wasn’t necessarily apparent at the time, the hearing revealed Comey’s flair for the dramatic. Here was someone who not only did the right thing, but wanted the world to know he had done the right thing.

If the “duty of candor” built Comey’s initial legend, it would also prove to be his undoing.

Most famous, or infamous, was the then–FBI director’s decision to hold a press conference in July 2016 to announce that the bureau had declined to recommend charging Hillary Clinton in connection to her use of a private email server as secretary of state. Comey’s characterization of the Democratic nominee, whom he described as having been “extremely careless” in her handling of classified information even though she wasn’t charged, enraged Democrats and drew criticism throughout the legal community. Three months later, and just 11 days before the presidential election, Comey sent a letter to Congress informing lawmakers that the FBI was reviewing additional emails it had discovered. He said he had “a duty to correct” after earlier telling the public the investigation had ended; Clinton would say she felt “shivved” and that Comey “forever changed history” by his actions. The FBI’s inspector general later rebuked Comey for “a serious error in judgment” for sending the letter so close to the election and without clearing it with senior Justice Department officials.

Comey’s candor may have ultimately helped cost him his job, but for vastly different reasons. His decision to inform Trump, then the president-elect, about an unverified dossier reporting that Russian intelligence officers had compromising material on Trump likely sowed the first seeds of distrust between the two men. Their relationship deteriorated further after Comey contradicted Trump’s characterization of Russia in a private meeting and disclosed to Congress and the public that the FBI was investigating whether his campaign had conspired with the Russians in 2016—all the while refusing Trump’s pleas to state that the president was not personally a target.

Far from shutting him up, Comey’s ouster in May 2017 prompted him to speak out even more. He gave contemporaneous notes he took of his interactions with Trump to a friend with instructions to leak them to a reporter. Those notes led to another riveting day of congressional testimony and served as key evidence for Mueller’s investigation. Which eventually led to the television specials and the many social-media posts.

Two years later, Comey is a man without a base. Democrats still fault him, as much as Russia or Clinton’s own shortcomings as a candidate, for delivering the election to Trump. And Trump and his supporters blame him for stealing the first two years of the very presidency he may have unwittingly created.

Not that Comey has really suffered, of course. In the great American tradition, he has profited handsomely from his infamy, reemerging as a self-styled truth-teller—a man who has turned against his former party and is now urging voters to dump the president who fired him. Comey is the rare figure with an outright political message who can command a national audience whose votes he isn’t seeking, or has ever sought. “You cannot have a president who’s a chronic liar,” he told the CNN crowd.

“I believe transparency is always good for democracy,” he added later. Whatever you think of Comey’s judgment in office, that’s a precept he’s backed up with action: Comey’s always been transparent, perhaps too much for his own good.