There is, I think, a fairly simple explanation for Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey’s decision to tell the chairmen of eight Congressional committees that some new emails from Hillary Clinton’s server had turned up. It is that the management, as well as the rank and file of the FBI, is as deeply riven as the electorate itself.
Presumably, Comey acted to prevent the battle within the Bureau from breaking into the open, via leaks that would have damaged the agency’s prestige.
This judgment is mostly intuitive, but it makes sense. The Union for US Border Patrol agents has endorsed Donald Trump. So has the 330,000-member Fraternal Order of Police. It would be surprising if significant numbers of the 34,000 FBI employees at all levels didn’t privately share Trump’s view that Clinton should have been indicted for careless handling of her email account.
Nor is the sentiment confined to Trump supporters. The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal is sharply divided about the Trump candidacy. But its zest for the story of Clinton’ private email server rivals its enthusiasm for the Whitewater saga it fomented in the 1990s. Surely there are sharp differences of opinion among the 14,000 special agents of the FBI.
The FBI has long sought to remain apolitical. As Byron Tau and Devlin Barrett wrote yesterday in the news pages of the WSJ:
FBI officials consider it a point of pride and professional ethics to stay above the political fray, yet the FBI now finds itself a target at the center of a high-level political firefight. Democrats and Republicans immediately seized on Mr. Comey’s letter not only to attack each other but the director himself.
Comey, 56, for many years a registered Republican voter, was nominated FBI director by President Barack Obama in 2013, replacing Robert Mueller, who had served since 2001. He was confirmed 99-1 by the Senate (the dissenter was Rand Paul, R-Ky). He has a long history of even-handed independence.
Famously, as Deputy Attorney General under George W. Bush, Comey raced to a Washington, D.C., intensive care unit to prevent White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez and Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card from taking advantage of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s weakened condition. The White House aides had sought to persuade Ashcroft to sign off on a domestic surveillance program he opposed. They left after Comey arrived.
A graduate of the College of William and Mary and the University of Chicago Law School, Comey spent six years as an assistant US attorney in the Southern District of New York, 1987-93, and another five years in the Eastern District of Virginia, 1996-2001. While in Richmond he served in 1996 as deputy special counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee.
Returning to the Southern District of New York in 2002 as US Attorney, Comey investigated President Clinton’s controversial last-minute pardon of financier Marc Rich, bringing no action; successfully prosecuted Adelphia Communications founder John Rigas for bank fraud and decorator Martha Stewart for trading on inside information; indicted investment banker Frank Quattrone for alleged evidence tampering during an investigation of practices at Credit Suisse First Boston (the charges were later dropped); and headed a special unit engaged in prosecuting international drug cartels.
Comey moved to the Justice Department in December 2003. He resigned in 2005 to become general counsel at Lockheed Martin, the aerospace contractor; in 2010, he joined Bridgewater Associates, a giant Connecticut hedge fund founded by Ray Dalio. He left for Columbia University’s Law School a few months before Obama tapped him to head the FBI.
Comey’s letter the next day brought into sharp relief both candidates’ shortcomings. As he sometimes does, Trump saw more clearly into the issue, but, as usual, failed to express his opinion to political advantage. “I’ll bet you without any knowledge there was a revolt in the FBI,” he told a rally in Golden, Colorado, perhaps more than a little disingenuously. Patrick Healry and Jonathan Martin wrote in The New York Times,
Handed a new opening against Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Trump used the moment to baselessly claim there had been an internal FBI “revolt” and made a sexually suggestive joke about Mr. Wiener.
Clinton, taking no account of the obvious counterfactual – suppose, in the absence of Comey’s action, the existence of the emails had been leaked to the Trump campaign? – turned her wrath on the FBI director. The Washington Post reported:
In her appearance Saturday, Clinton stopped just short of accusing Comey. Once a registered Republican, of partisan interference in the Nov. 8 election. But she did not attempt to conceal her anger. Other Democrats went much further, issuing scathing assessments of Comey’s motives and timing, as the potential for new legal jeopardy roiled an already tumultuous campaign.
Whatever hope there is that the Republican Party will recover its bearings as a pragmatic steward of the existing order – I admit it seems a slim one – rests on men and women like Comey. In the meantime, the FBI has an upright and politically adroit director.