On July 5, 2016, in the midst of a hotly contested presidential election, then-FBI Director James Comey held a press conference to announce that one of the two candidates would not be indicted.
The press conference was a hand-wringing display of personal angst, as the director replayed his deliberation over the facts in an attempt to show his fairness and evenhandedness. He concluded that while Hillary Clinton did not break the law, she had acted with extreme carelessness.
Comey should have been fired on the spot. If a federal law enforcement agency determines that there is insufficient evidence to issue an indictment, it is improper to suggest that wrongdoing nevertheless occurred.
It was a huge windfall for Donald Trump and his supporters, who were constructing a campaign talking point around their opponent’s extreme carelessness. That talking point now had the imprimatur of the FBI.
A few months later, when the news cycle seized upon the salacious fact that the spouse of one of the candidate’s top aides was caught using his personal computer for sexting, Comey intervened again—this time to determine whether the laptop was also used to store top secret State Department documents.
He could not help himself. Like the referee in the big game who never learned to swallow his whistle, he seemed determined to be the bit player whose petty role in big things determined the election.
Trump’s campaign ultimately benefited—perhaps decisively—from the FBI director’s massive bureaucratic overreach. Because the raison d’etre of Trumpism was to end Washington’s imperial bureaucracy, this was either hypocritical or ironic—depending on who you supported.
If you recall, the shepherd David slew Goliath with his own sword. Trump’s insurgent supporters were not complaining if he was using a single self-promoting bureaucrat to gain a beachhead from which to mount his war against Washington.
The Washington establishment, though, was not going to sit there and take it. Once Trump was elected, a suggestion that the Russians did something in coordination with Trump to steal the election came from deep in the sinews of the bureaucracy.
What that something was and how the coordination occurred was never explained. The suggestion itself was enough to provide primacy to the person whose job it was to investigate: James Comey.
An FBI director not caught in Washington’s typical game of self-aggrandizement would have been helpful to domestic tranquility here.
Comey could have immediately held a press conference to assure the polity that there was no evidence the Russians hacked into the voting machines to control the casting of electronic ballots and that such a feat was technologically impossible. That would have allayed the fears of many Americans who were becoming convinced by the murky reporting on the subject that the Russians and Trump had done just that.
He could have described with clarity the essential subject matter: An unknown entity secured the email password of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager by asking him for it under a false pretext and then illegally published emails that were embarrassing to her campaign.
Even then, the FBI director could have quelled some of the hysteria by saying the simple truth:
- This was a phishing scheme and not a hack.
- The FBI is generally not successful in determining the source of phishing schemes.
- There is no evidence that the Russians were behind the phishing scheme, save speculation by some that they preferred Trump over Clinton.
- There is also no evidence that the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russians on the phishing scheme nor would input by his campaign staff be particularly helpful in causing John Podesta to surrender his email password.
This level of clarity would have put an end to months of unfounded speculation about Russia. Comey seemed to prefer the unfounded speculation, perhaps because it put him front and center—the exact spot where he kept inserting himself in the election.
The last straw came in Comey’s recent testimony before Congress. He was unwilling to close any doors that would have removed him as a pivot point in Washington’s consuming obsession with the election.
He misled Congress by overdramatizing the amount of classified information that wound up on Anthony Weiner’s laptop, forcing the FBI to issue a retraction. He provided no more clarity on the Russian investigation than the rank conjecture that has existed since December.
He seemed reluctant, too, to take his investigation in any direction that would have exposed the Russia-did-it narrative as political gamesmanship sourced in illegality.
There is no dispute that NSA intercepts were illegally leaked. Americans were illegally unmasked without regard for minimization procedures required under the law. A reasonable inference is that somebody has been using the nation’s most sensitive eavesdropping techniques to play politics.
Comey seemed dumbfounded by these things that indisputably happened and that the FBI exists to investigate.
In firing James Comey, Trump has kept faith with his promise to rid Washington of outsized bureaucrats who fail to perform their basic functions.
Comey was useful to the Trump campaign when he was mounting his donkey to tilt at Hillary and Huma and Weiner—that’s true. However, he was useless when the facts required him to turn the looming giant of Russian interference into the trickling windmill that it always was.
You’re fired. It’s about time. Obama should have done it in July.
Thomas J. Farnan is an attorney from Pittsburgh, Pa.