Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Scout’s Honor?

“James and Patrice Comey have five children, having lost one son, Collin, who died at a very early age. The couple’s four daughters, after being disappointed that Hillary Clinton didn’t win, have been politically active in the wake of the 2016 election. ‘I wanted a woman president really badly, and I supported Hillary Clinton. A lot of my friends worked for her. And I was devastated when she lost,’ Patrice Comey told [George] Stephanopoulos.”
—Meghan Keneally, “James Comey’s wife warned him: ‘Don’t be the torture guy,’ ” ABCnews.com, April 15
In my previous post I patted myself on the back for my prescience five years ago in seeming to see where the pursuit of political data mining was going to go. In the interest of balance, allow me to revisit some comments more than a year ago where I now realize I got it wrong.

Fifteen months ago I wrote, “I have nothing but sympathy for [FBI Director James] Comey. He had a sterling reputation going into the election period, but he wound up in a situation where he was guaranteed to have political activists on all sides livid at him. He clearly did not want to be discussing the investigation at all, but his boss Attorney General Lynch left him no alternative.”

At that point I saw Comey as a man forced unwillingly into a terrible position. Because I had heard so many people on both sides of the political divide refer to him invariably as “a Boy Scout” and “a straight shooter,” I took it on faith that he was a disinterested public servant doing his best in a difficult situation. Subsequent events—not the least of which are his recently published book and his non-stop media publicity tour—have shown me once again it is wise to be skeptical even when—or maybe mostly when—“everybody” seems to agree on something.

The picture that has emerged of Comey is not now nearly so flattering. When the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s rogue email server was completed, it was unusual that the findings were announced publicly. It was even more unusual that they were announced personally by the FBI director. The proximate reason for it going down that way was that Attorney General Loretta Lynch had announced she would automatically accept the FBI director’s recommendation on the matter. While not formally recusing herself, she effectively gave Comey the last word, which explains why he made the announcement instead of her. This happened because a short time before she had had a private meeting in her personal jet with the former president who had jump-started her career by appointing her as a U.S. Attorney and who also happened to be Hillary Clinton’s husband. We now know from Comey that he actually quite willingly took the opportunity to make the announcement, not only because of the appearance of conflict-of-interest in the Lynch/Clinton meeting but also because of other compromising information about Lynch that was not revealed.

“In early 2016,” reported ABCNews.com on Comey’s interview with George Stephanopoulos, “the U.S. intelligence community obtained classified information that, according to Comey, ‘raised the question of whether Loretta Lynch was controlling me and the FBI and keeping the Clinton campaign informed about our investigation.’ ”

Many people blame Comey’s announcement of the (brief) re-opening of the email investigation for costing Clinton the election. There is no way to know that, but amazingly Comey has now explained that he made the announcement to actually help Clinton, i.e. to avoid any reason for her opponents to later accuse her administration of being illegitimate. He has said he only made the announcement because he was sure she win the election anyway. Text messages between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who were desperate not to see Donald Trump be elected, have suggested that Clinton’s exoneration had always been a done deal. They also suggest that FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe was doing his best to sit on re-opening the investigation until after the election but ran out of time. Thus the investigation was re-opened at the worst possible time for Clinton—just days before the election. In other words Comey and McCabe were actively trying to help Clinton but inadvertently may have doomed her chances. With friends like them, who needs enemies?

That top officials of the FBI would be taking sides in an election and attempting to affect the results is frightening and shocking. Such behavior could possibly be justified if they had concrete evidence that Trump represented an existential threat to the republic. In his book and interviews, Comey does his best to insinuate that this is the case. Yet the best case he can muster for his animus against Trump is that Comey finds him morally unfit. He has provided no hard evidence that would justify an impeachment and, in fact, nothing that voters did not know when they voted in 2016. Having felt that strongly, Comey’s only viable course would have been to resign in protest and to give his principled reasons. Instead, he did his best to hold on to his job. He has actually said that he thought he was safe because, as FBI chief, he was in charge of the Russia investigation. In other words, he thought he had leverage over Trump. When Trump resisted that leverage by insisting Comey state publicly what he was telling the president privately (that Trump was not a target of the investigation), Comey refused. Trump then fired him, and Comey retaliated by leaking his own notes of their meeting, knowing it would trigger a special counsel. A year later there is still no sign of anything chargeable or impeachable involving Trump personally in relation to the Russian election meddling. In fact, so far there is much more evidence of collusion coming from within the Justice Department on behalf of Trump’s opponent.

In light of what we know now, it is actually reasonable to understand that, when Trump told Comey he needed loyalty, what he meant was that he needed to know he would not be stabbed in the back. If that is indeed what he meant, he certainly got his answer soon enough.

I have absolutely no interest in being a defender of Donald Trump, but here is the thing. By the end of January 2021—2025 at the latest—Trump will be gone. The FBI, on the other hand, does not face elections and enjoys a certain amount of independence from our elected representatives. It will still be around long after Trump has left the White House. Maybe a politicized FBI does not bother you because you happen to agree with Comey’s political views, but it certainly scares me. I do not like the idea of an FBI director who feels he knows better than the voters who should be in charge of the government—and who is willing to use the bureau’s resources accordingly.

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