Is James Comey Just the Guy Who Helped Donald Trump Get Elected?
I was not a huge fan of Hillary Clinton the presidential candidate, and throughout her apparent postmortem attempts to deflect blame about losing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to someone she arguably should’ve handily beaten in Donald Trump—I know she won the popular vote, but this is beside the point, not to mention largely inconsequential given that a straight popular vote does not decide presidential elections (though it probably should)—my reaction has been one of irritated refusal to indulge Clinton in her finger-pointing after the fact. Not that she likely needed it, but Hill-Dawg had a pronounced head start in the form of pledged superdelegates, as well as the unspoken but totally believable and real backing of the DNC in her bid to secure the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Regardless, and ultimately, I feel the onus is on the candidate to own the lion’s share of the blame when losing or graciously accept and show thanks when winning.
This aside, even I recognize that a complete story of the 2016 election can’t be told unless we talk about former FBI director James Comey and his decision to inform Congress of the Bureau’s reopening of an investigation into Clinton’s use of a private E-mail server.
Comey is currently at the forefront of the 24-hour news cycle because he wrote a book and he was interviewed by ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos. His book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, released earlier this week, is less a memoir and more a treatise comprising his views on what constitutes ethical leadership and what makes a good leader, utilizing anecdotal experiences from his career.
As for the interview (you can read the transcript of the exhaustive full interview here), Comey’s insights, even if they aren’t wholly original or surprising, are nonetheless notable for their candor. He thinks Gen. David Petraeus should have been prosecuted more vigorously for lying to the FBI. He views Rod Rosenstein’s pretext for his (Comey’s) firing related to his handling of the Clinton E-mail scandal as untrue and “dishonorable.” He considers—or at least considered at the time of meeting him—Jeff Sessions to be “overmatched” for the role of Attorney General. He disagrees with how Barack Obama insinuated his opinions on Clinton and her E-mails into the investigative mix. He claims to have told John Kelly, then-Homeland Security chief and current White House Chief of Staff, not to resign when called over the phone by Kelly, but offers that he would support a decision to do so now.
Most notably from a headline-grabbing standpoint, his characterization of Donald Trump as someone who is mentally fit to be President, but “morally unfit” for the position, is not the kind of depiction #45 and his cronies want to hear. Comey essentially refers to Trump as a mob boss without all the leg-breaking, and it’s no wonder Trump has responded in quick fashion by labeling Comey an “untruthful slimeball” (Pot, meet Kettle), and the White House has trotted out Sarah Sanders to refer to Comey as a “disgraced partisan hack.”
The lingering question then, is how much we value James Comey’s insights on Trump, particularly his reflections on Trump’s efforts to get him to let investigation into Michael Flynn’s role in the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia go, in light of his questionable decision-making regarding sensitive information involving both the Clinton and Trump presidential campaigns.
For a study in comparisons and contrasts, let’s take a peek at three recent editorials/opinions from USA Today on the subject. USA Today’s editorial board, for one, regards Comey favorably overall, though this largely seems predicated on Comey being rated as more credible than Trump, a distinction that is akin to being labeled as less sleazy than Harvey Weinstein; the former FBI director kind of wins by default on that one. Otherwise, the esteem for the Comey-Trump “blood feud” is like that of a rubbernecker watching a burning car wreck. Just because we can’t look away doesn’t necessarily mean we should be watching.
Imaginably, not everyone writing for USA Today agrees. With the obligatory pro-Trump rebuttal—why do major news outlets feel they need to cater to his base?—Chris Buskirk, editor and publisher of a journal called American Greatness, which very humbly bills itself as “the leading voice of the next generation of American Conservatism,” assailed Comey for penning a book “full of smarmy, self-serving, mendacious claptrap,” and suggested Comey has a vicious anti-Trump agenda and seeks only to “undermine or destroy the duly elected president of the United States.” Much like some Hillary Clinton supporters will never be able to abandon the narrative that she had the presidency taken from her, Donald Trump’s most fervent backers will continue to see him as the most persecuted POTUS in history. Never mind that he’s enjoyed more advantages in life than you or I are likely to, but this is apparently the age of hyperbole and superlatives aided by ignorance of even recent history.
For the sake of a less conservative critique, meanwhile, we have the thoughts of Jill Lawrence, USA Today commentary editor, who gives James Comey no credit for his scathing criticisms of the President, insisting that his decision to make news of the reopening of the Clinton E-mail investigation was not good leadership, thus rendering his views on leadership in her eyes and many others’ suspect, and opining that Comey is once again inserting himself into another presidential race, only with more time in advance of the election. Lawrence’s reservations echo those of other Comey detractors across the political aisle. That Comey’s revelations are ego-driven and made with a flair for the dramatic. That his ends-justify-the-means propensity for public disclosure ignores his culpability in bypassing DOJ policy and the rule of law. That his soon-to-be bestseller could not only galvanize report for GOP candidates, but hinder Robert Mueller’s investigation that has long been—fairly or unfairly—accused of anti-Trump bias.
As far as Lawrence is concerned, all she really cares to hear from James Comey is an apology—not just to Hillary Clinton and those who stumped for votes for her, but to America as a whole—that he helped elect Donald Trump. I’m sure she’s not alone in this yearning. Whether or not this is the ego in Comey talking, a self-confidence he himself copped to at different points during the ABC News interview, though, this seems unlikely anytime soon. When prompted by George Stephanopoulos, Comey said that he would do what he did again without regard to thought of whether someone as potentially dangerous to American politics as Trump might win, and likening #45 to a “forest fire” that’s “going to do tremendous damage,” but will give “healthy things a chance to grow that had no chance before that fire.” Presumably, Comey is talking about the growth of political engagement by the American people, especially young people, but it’s one thing to appreciate a wildfire for its restorative properties and quite another to be the one holding the matchbook.
One wonders by the time we are done dissecting the 2016 presidential election whether we’ll be at or even past the 2020 election. Speaking of Hillary Clinton, recall that she had her own promotional book tour relating to an insider account published but a few months ago. What Happened has had its fair share of praise and scorn since its release from those across the political spectrum. Among the Breitbart crowd, well, you wouldn’t really expect many to review it favorably. An oddly pleasurable consequence of Clinton’s continued prominence is that on FOX News and elsewhere, the mere mention of her name causes commentators to all but froth at the mouth—even though she lost. David Weigel of the Washington Post referred to this effect as her “shadow presidency,” and this seems all too accurate. Heck, if you wanted to, you could probably make a drinking game out of it. Go to the FOX News website. Wait for something about Hillary or Bill to pop up. Drink. Chances are you could get hammered in a short period of time.
Among liberals and even moderates, though, critique has been abundant. Certainly, Bernie Sanders supporters did not take kindly to her characterization and blame of the senator from Vermont that accused him of not being a “true” Democrat and of engaging in character assassination rather than a substantive debate about the issues. From their standpoint, this slight was fairly disingenuous considering Sanders a) campaigned for her after suspending his presidential bid (much to the chagrin of the Bernie or Bust crowd, to stress), and b) that she enjoyed such a strong backing from the Democratic Party establishment. Otherwise, observers found fault with Clinton’s apparent defense in her memoir of running as a product of a moneyed political system that voters rejected—narrowly, yes, and in favor of a fake populist in Donald Trump, but even so. For a subset of the American electorate that already saw Hillary Clinton as out of touch, What Happened hasn’t really done much to change this perspective.
Owing to Clinton’s recent polarizing account, one is left to consider what will become of James Comey and his legacy. The level of discourse between Donald Trump and the former FBI director has been characterized by various sources as being remarkably catty given the stature of these two men, and whether this is a product of their egos, a social media-fueled culture of tit-for-tat personal attacks, or both, for those of us among the American public growing weary of pettiness between political figures without substance—will we never tire of hearing about the size of Trump and his hands?—this whole business gives us a reason to tune out.
Certainly, Comey is detested by people on the left and the right, with Republicans attacking him as a liar and leaker of information, and Democrats and other members of the anti-Trump crowd deriding his actions as indefensible. Their effect on the 2016 election notwithstanding, those familiar with DOJ policy were highly critical of the decisions to both disclose that the Bureau doesn’t recommend prosecuting Clinton for her “extremely sloppy” handling of her E-mails while as Secretary of State and to make it known that the investigation was being reopened. For all of Comey’s waxing philosophical on the desire for governmental transparency, in these instances, perhaps such disclosure was unwarranted. After all, the Federal Bureau of Investigation often requires confidentiality as a product of the type of work it does, and if Comey was concerned about a potential backlash from conservative circles if he failed to be more forthcoming about matters involving the Democrats’ presidential hopeful, this fear may likewise have been misplaced or overstated.
Evidently, James Comey sees A Higher Loyalty and his criticisms of the President as necessary given the present political climate, much as Hillary Clinton feels compelled to explain What Happened and to be a leading voice against Trump despite her stated desire not to run again for public office. Just the same, with the likes of Claire McCaskill and others cautioning Clinton about unabashed attacks on #45 and his loyal “deplorables” when midterm elections are fast approaching, it is worth asking how valuable Comey’s dissection of ethical leadership is when his own leadership skills are being brought into question. Comey served this country within the Department of Justice for nearly 25 years. Maybe he would best serve it now by showing more restraint.