James Comey is not a hero

"Ethical leadership" from the man who broke FBI rules to help elect Donald Trump

James Comey.
(Image credit: Illustrated | YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images)

It's been bizarre to see #TheResistance figures eagerly queuing up to buy James Comey's new book — written by the man more responsible than any other non-candidate for the election of Donald Trump.

Comey may be a demonstration of how Trump obstructed justice, and his testimony deserves close consideration. But he is no martyr for democracy, and neither is he a moral exemplar in general. At bottom, he's just another grifter out to cash in on his carefully-crafted reputation.

Let us recall Comey's last-minute intervention in the 2016 election, when he loudly announced the reopening of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails on Oct. 28, then quietly closed it again after a few days. So far as anyone can tell, it directly caused a sharp decline in her poll numbers, and quite possibly may have tipped the election outcome on its own. (Of course, only Clinton's extraordinarily unpopularity allowed the election to be close enough to tip in the first place.)

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This was in direct violation of FBI rules on public statements about ongoing investigations. For very obvious reasons (which Comey unquestionably understood), national law enforcement must tread with extreme caution when it comes to investigations of political candidates. Claims that a candidate is corrupt is towards the top of the list of how authoritarian governments undermine fair elections.

Let us also recall what Comey did not say: that the Trump campaign was also under FBI investigation at that same moment — and for possibly colluding with a hostile foreign power, something that is considerably worse than violating government rules about proper email management. He left a New York Times story relating false claims of anonymous FBI sources that the agency saw no connection between Russia and Trump stand without correction.

In short: During the 2016 election, James Comey in his capacity as FBI director behaved as a committed and highly effective partisan of Donald Trump.

But that's not all. Let's consider his previous most famous career moment, when he helped prevent an end-run around proper legal procedures in March 2004. At that moment, Attorney General John Ashcroft was severely ill in the hospital and Comey (then Ashcroft's deputy) was temporarily serving in his place. Head of the Office of Legal Counsel Jack Goldsmith had judged that an ongoing warrantless wiretapping program was illegal, and he, along with Comey and then-FBI Director Robert Mueller, threatened to resign unless the program was stopped. In response, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and then-Chief of Staff Andrew Card went to Ashcroft's hospital room to try to trick the delirious man into signing off on it. Comey got wind of this and went blazing across D.C. in the middle of the night to try to head them off. (Remarkably, Ashcroft told Card and Gonzales to go pound sand.)

And sure, good for them. But what the focus on this dramatic confrontation overlooks is that Comey went on to approve a warrantless wiretapping program that was still plainly illegal and a bald violation of the Fourth Amendment. When it came out in 2005, there was immediately a gigantic scandal, and the legal rationale that the Bush legal team did endorse — that the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force somehow implicitly authorized warrantless wiretapping — was utterly preposterous. (Indeed, the major question raised by that ridiculous legal opinion was just how loopy and extreme the previous program must have been. We still don't know.)

And as Trevor Timm explains here, much of the rest of his career has been dedicated to enabling other authoritarian abuses. He spent years trying to force Apple to undermine its security by putting in an backdoor for authorities, and worked hard to outlaw end-to-end encryption altogether. He defended the arrest and due process-free detention of a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil for well over three years. He signed off on the illegal Bush torture program, despite his own doubts.

Now, a couple large caveats are in order. There is no reason to doubt Comey's recounting of how he was fired by Trump, nor the implication that it was done to obstruct the Russia investigation — indeed, Trump himself confirmed that on national TV. Neither is he a fraud or partisan hack on the level of John Yoo or Kellyanne Conway. The Republican Party smear campaign against Comey — who donated to the presidential campaigns of both John McCain and Mitt Romney — is a transparently cynical and dishonest attempt to protect President Trump by attacking the messenger.

But that doesn't mean Comey actually lives up to his pious self-branding as some model of character, honor, and "ethical leadership."

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If he were half as concerned about those things as he was about his personal image, Donald Trump might not be president today.

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