James Comey: Why Obama wants a Republican to be FBI chief

The president is reportedly tapping a former Bush-era Justice Department official to replace Robert Mueller

Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in 2007.
(Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Obama is reportedly preparing to nominate James B. Comey, a high-ranking Justice Department official during the George W. Bush administration, to replace FBI Director Robert Mueller III, whose already extended 10-year term expires in September. Comey is a former hedge fund executive, the former top lawyer for defense contractor Lockheed Martin, and a Republican. Why would Obama pick him for such a high-profile job?

1. Republicans are more likely to confirm a Republican

The other candidate for the FBI directorship was Lisa Monaco, Obama's counterterrorism adviser, says Michael S. Schmidt at The New York Times, and Obama's decision to go with Comey makes "a strong statement about bipartisanship at a time when he faces renewed criticism from Republicans in Congress and has had difficulty winning confirmation of some important nominees."

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Right, "everyone knows that nominating a Democrat to run the FBI would be an intolerable provocation," says Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, sarcastically. But more to the point, if Obama actually believes that "nominating Comey will be seen as some kind of bipartisan olive branch, he's crazy."

It's certainly true that "Chuck Hagel's prior service as a Republican senator from Nebraska did not spare him from a bruising nomination battle for secretary of defense," note Sari Horwitz and Peter Finn at The Washington Post. But there's another reason to suspect that "Comey's Senate confirmation won't necessarily be a breeze," says Garrett M. Graff at The Washingtonian: Dick Cheney. Comey was also reportedly on Obama's short list two years ago, when Mueller's original term was expiring. One of the reasons Obama punted was Comey's role in the eventual indictment of Cheney aide Scooter Libby in the Valerie Plame leak investigation.

"As one source said at the time, 'Dick Cheney would call in every chit he has to torpedo Jim Comey,'" Graff says. "The weeks ahead will determine whether the passage of time has muted that concern."

2. Comey very dramatically pushed back against Bush's wiretapping program

Other than Cheney and perhaps some of the people Comey has prosecuted — including New York mob boss John Gambino and Martha Stewart — the longtime federal prosecutor is getting pretty glowing reviews from across the political spectrum.

That's largely because of his "reputation as a fierce defender of the law and the integrity of the Justice Department regardless of the political pressures of the moment," say The Washington Post's Horwitz and Finn. And much of that reputation stems from a dramatic encounter on March 10, 2004, in the hospital room of gravely ill Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Comey's "singular act of courage" that night is clearly his "shining moment," says Marc Ambinder at The Week. Because of Ashcroft's illness, Comey — then deputy attorney general — was temporarily in charge of the Justice Department. When he refused to re-authorize a broad warrantless electronic surveillance program the department had determined was illegal, two top Bush aides — Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales — headed to the hospital to try to convince the delirious Ashcroft to sign off. Comey, tipped off, beat them there.

In stopping the program, and saying no "when the Bush administration wanted to act like the rule of law was inconvenient," says Ambinder, Comey "pissed off the White House, many of his own colleagues, made an enemy of Dick Cheney for life, and earned plaudits from civil libertarians as a liberal-minded man of the people." He later "helped institutionalize the very program" he famously killed, albeit with some important legal changes, Ambinder adds, but "the takeaway is this: At a critical moment, when his career was on the line, Comey's instinct was to narrow, and not enlarge, the scope of executive power."

"Comey is rightly viewed as a hero for his handling of the famous hospital incident," says Massimo Calabresi at TIME. It was the "most important confrontation between U.S. law enforcement and the White House since Watergate," and so of course every article about Comey in the coming days will highlight his role in the standoff. But "none of them will capture it as Comey did himself," in a 2007 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee:

In other words, says Chicago blogger Driftglass, Obama nominated Enzo the Baker, from The Godfather, to run the FBI:

3. The Justice Department could use a little reining in

At a time when the Justice Department is facing controversy over its aggressive prosecution of leakers, among other real or trumped-up scandals being investigated by House Republicans, "James Comey is in the tradition of the undeniably incorruptible," says Taylor Marsh at her blog. His selection as FBI chief is "a revealing moment by President Obama we haven't seen from him in literally years" — a message that "integrity still matters."

Or, "if you're cynical, which is understandable," Marsh adds, "it's another way for President Obama to signal he's going out on his own terms, not those of the scandal mongers."

Well, "one can't help but to be curious about the timing of the nomination," says Benjamin Brophy at The American Spectator. This is the hardest moment of the Obama presidency, and "the nomination of a Republican to such a prominent position could indeed be an effort to draw attention away from his troubles as well as reinforce the myth that he is a bipartisan champion."

It's worth noting that, if confirmed as FBI director, Comey will be "essentially untouchable by the White House," says Ambinder at The Week. His instincts to stand up to presidents trying to expand their power "may — may — mean that Comey will rein in the excesses of FBI surveillance authority."

Or, he may be more open with Congress about ways to codify it into law. As a prosecutor, he has a bias in favor of building cases. Building cases means asking for subpoenas. I have no reason to be believe that Comey would be any more friendly or any less friendly to journalists than his predecessor. He will probably follow the lead of his boss, the attorney general. [The Week]

Anyone hoping for a rule-of-law approach at Comey's FBI can take hope from a speech he gave to the National Security Agency staffers in the summer of 2005, says The Washingtonian's Graff:

It can be very, very hard to be a conscientious attorney working in the intelligence community. Hard because we are likely to hear the words, 'If we don't do this, people will die'.... 'No' must be spoken into a storm of crisis, with loud voices all around, and with lives hanging in the balance.... It takes an understanding that, in the long run, intelligence under the law is the only sustainable intelligence in this country. [Comey, via The Washingtonian]

4. Comey is well-qualified for the job

From the 1990s until his departure from the Bush administration in 2005, Comey had a remarkable career at the Justice Department. He has headed up the U.S. Attorney's office in Richmond, Va., and New York City, and successfully prosecuted numerous terrorism and organized crime cases.

"Jim is one of the great leaders of the Justice Department," Jamie Gorelick, a deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, tells The Washington Post. "He has worked very closely with the bureau. He knows its strengths and will be great at enhancing its capabilities."

Bill Otis, who worked with Comey at the U.S. Attorney's office in Virginia, is at least as enthusiastic. Comey is "an outstanding choice, and desperately needed to shore up the integrity and apolitical nature that is essential to the FBI and — especially now — the Department of Justice," he says at Crime and Consequences. Otis highlights Comey's role in creating Project Exile, a push to prosecute local gun crimes in federal courts — and protecting his boss from the political ramifications:

We worked on a number of things together, probably the most prominent of which was the threat by a district judge to hold our boss, the Clinton-appointed United States Attorney, in contempt for bringing so many gun cases into federal court. Our boss selected Jim and me to represent her, notwithstanding that both of us were known to be Republicans. In my case, it was because I had the reputation as the office egghead (an occupational hazard among appellate lawyers). In his, it was because of his spectacular skills. Jim will bring to the job those same skills, plus everything that is most needed just now: Integrity, seriousness of purpose, guts and brains. [C&C]

It also helps Comey that his "prime backer in that project" was then-Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder," says The Washingtonian's Graff. "Comey was so proud of his Richmond work that a gun confiscated in Project Exile hung in his office as general counsel at Lockheed Martin after leaving the Bush administration."

What else is there to know about James Comey? He tried to stop the Bush administration from torturing terrorism suspects, arguing that the Justice Department would be ashamed of approving the "enhanced" interrogation techniques. But he also apparently signed off on some of those techniques, according to leaked emails.

Marc Ambinder has a list of some other points about Comey:

1. He is an expert in securities law.2. He is very, very tall.3. He has never been an FBI agent.4. His adult life until he joined the Bush administration was spent largely as a prosecutor of major crimes, ranging from terrorism to the break-up of the Gambino crime family.5. He supports the president's approach to domestic terrorism and its prosecution. He signed the amicus brief on same-sex marriage.6. He left the Bush administration and made a bucket full of money at Bridgewater and Associates in Connecticut, has served on several financial crimes task forces, and in January of this year became a senior research scholar at Columbia University law school. [The Week]

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