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Despised by Trump supporters for one reason, and Clinton supporters for another, sacked FBI director James Comey is a critic of America’s ‘moral error’. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Comey, Trump and the Hillary emails

In James Comey’s book, windows feature prominently. They come in a series of recollections that appear like cheesy Spielberg scenes: the principled man of justice, ensnared once more in the exigencies of a complex world, meditates on his responsibility while staring out on something symbolically resonant.

From his Manhattan office as an attorney, he stares at the Brooklyn Bridge and recalls his decision to prosecute a southern Baptist minister for lying to federal investigators. In the same city, he prosecutes Martha Stewart for the same crime. This solitary figure resolves to pursue an American darling, and steels himself for the public’s hatred.

Years later, on a private jet home from Los Angeles, having just learnt from television that the president has terminated his directorship of the FBI with immediate effect, a numbed Comey removes a bottle of Californian pinot noir from his suitcase and pours a glass into a paper cup. From the window, he views the vastness of America and wonders: What next?

I don’t mention these moments cynically, even if it does remind me of Orwell’s injunction to presume saints guilty until proven innocent. But in bitterly partisan America, there’s little risk of Comey becoming beatified – to a good chunk of the country he’s either the narcissist who destroyed Hillary Clinton or the narcissist trying to destroy Donald Trump. In a five-hour interview with America’s ABC this week – only an hour of which was televised – it was Comey who nominated ego and vanity as personal qualities he has had to vigilantly patrol, lest righteousness blind him. “Since I was a kid, I’ve had a sense of confidence,” he told George Stephanopoulos. “That I know I’m good at certain things. And there’s a danger that that will bleed over into pride, into not being open-minded to the fact that I could be wrong and other people could have a better view of it. And so I think that’s my primary worry about myself, that is an overconfidence that can lead to that – that pride, that closed-mindedness. I’ve tried to guardrail that my whole life. First of all, by marrying someone who will tell me anything at any time.”

In a long career, Comey himself has challenged some of America’s most influential and intractable egos: Martha Stewart, Dick Cheney, both Clintons, and, most famously, Donald Trump. To review that career, his book and the 100-page transcript to this week’s marathon ABC interview, there appears a thoughtful commitment to truth, justice and transparency, however imperfectly applied. In a cynical age, we might even call this commitment old-fashioned. If the extraordinary conflict between the president and the former FBI director is viewed as a contest of moral credibility, it’s difficult to see it as a close one.

In a 2004 meeting as deputy attorney-general, Comey turned to the then vice-president, Dick Cheney, and told him that his proposed surveillance program was illegal. The Justice Department would not authorise it. “Thousands of people are going to die because of what you’re doing,” the vice-president told him. Comey held.

Less than a week later, Comey was acting attorney-general after his superior, John Ashcroft, was hospitalised with severe pancreatitis. One evening, while Ashcroft lay in intensive care, Comey learnt that then president George W. Bush had dispatched the White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and his chief of staff Andrew Card to Ashcroft’s hospital bed to request his signature on the surveillance program. Another window: “I was on the way home, driving along Constitution Avenue,” Comey recalled this week. “So on my left, I could see the Washington Monument ... And the phone rang.” It was Ashcroft’s chief of staff, alerting Comey to the plot. “So I hung up the phone, told the driver: ‘Ed, I have to get to George Washington Hospital immediately.’ And he didn’t need to hear more than the tone in my voice. And so he turned on the lights and siren and drove this armoured vehicle like it was a NASCAR race.”

While his wife held his hand, a gaunt Ashcroft rose from his bed and “blasted” Bush’s guys that they had misled him, and failed to provide him with proper legal advice. “But that doesn’t matter,” Ashcroft said, as recalled by Comey. “Because I’m not the attorney-general. There’s the attorney-general.”

Gonzales and Card left with their papers unsigned. They never acknowledged Comey’s presence. “I was angry,” Comey told a Senate committee a few years later. “I thought I just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man, who did not have the powers of the attorney-general because they had been transferred to me.”

There was another person in the room as alarmed as Comey was by the White House’s desperate intervention. He arrived minutes after Bush’s emissaries had left. It was the then FBI director, Robert Mueller. The three men would later discuss a mass resignation. This episode was one reason why, almost a decade later, president Obama appointed Comey as Mueller’s replacement.

Before this – before Stewart, Bush, Clinton and Trump – Comey had led successful prosecutions against the Gambino crime family. In 2002, he began investigating the then president Bill Clinton’s pardon of the fugitive Marc Rich. The pardon was just one of more than 170 made on his final day in office, but the most notorious. Owing almost $US50 million in taxes, and wanted on multiple counts of fraud, Rich had fled the United States in 1983 to reside luxuriously in Switzerland. He had also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Clinton campaigns. Ultimately, the investigation was dropped without charges. But today, Comey says: “President Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich took my breath away. The notion that the president of the United States would pardon a fugitive without asking the prosecutors or the investigators, ‘What do you think?’ was shocking to me.”

Comey has prosecuted the lowly and the famous. He has investigated and defied both Democrats and Republicans. This week, Comey fondly cited a tweet one of his children had shown him. “That Comey is such a political hack,” it read. “I just can’t figure out which party.”

As I read the transcript of this week’s interview, I wondered if there was too sweet a simplicity in Comey’s meditations – and if his reflections on ethical leadership might ever be complicated by his own flaws, or the historical flaws of his beloved FBI. To a degree, they were. I was surprised to read his unprompted references to the corrupt and intimidatory leadership of the bureau’s first director, J. Edgar Hoover, and a sardonic reference to weapons of mass destruction.

If this is a contest of moral credibility, it is a poor one.

 

Hillary Clinton’s loss was a multi-causal fiasco, but ask any of her acolytes and they won’t tell you she lost because she was a charmless, negligent and destructively paranoid candidate whose rural outreach team was based in a borough of New York City renowned for pioneering yarn bombing.

Nor did she lose because leaks showed her party had improperly yielded to her sense of entitlement and anointed her well before the primaries. Irrelevant. She didn’t lose because she secretly installed an insecure server trafficking state secrets in her home’s basement, constituting a negligence that, if repeated by any intelligence officer, would have likely condemned them to the rough house.

It had nothing to do with her foundation serving as a political war chest that did quid pro quo with goon states, or the hypocrisy of charging Wall Street a mint for speeches of empty piety, or for being an exemplar of the political establishment in a year when a good part of the country sought its annihilation. It had nothing to do with her arrogant estrangement from vital parts of the electorate, and it was irrelevant that her own policy advisers wondered between themselves what, precisely, she stood for.

No. It was James Comey.

In an election this close – Clinton won the popular vote, and key states were decided narrowly – you can plausibly isolate one variable as the determining one. Comey’s public statements about the email investigation is one. It just might have swayed it. Comey doesn’t like to think of it, but accepts that it is possible. Of course it is. It’s more than possible: it’s likely. But this doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have done it, and nor does it magically evaporate the hundred other factors that contributed to this catastrophe.

Having experienced a painful autopsy of a failed and “unloseable” election, I can tell you that there is a common reflex to finger one variable as the cause of failure. It’s an intellectual dishonesty, born of some passionate prejudice, and it’s why parties hold inquiries afterwards – to try to take the full, complicated measure of defeat.

The blaming of Comey is the isolation of one villain among an intense cluster of variables. But it’s not the most important thing here. What’s most important was whether Comey was justified in how he publicly dealt with the FBI’s investigation. It’s been much less reported than his excoriating – and disturbing – portrait of Trump, but this matter comprised roughly a third of the five-hour conversation with the ABC.

As it is, the saga of Comey, Clinton and the emails is being bitterly reprosecuted in the media – and the credibility of Comey as a witness to Trump’s moral poverty is being undermined by Clinton aides who still consider him the devil. Lanny Davis, who served as special counsel to president Clinton and is close to Hillary, wrote a column this week entitled: “Admit it, James Comey: You’ve been lying all along.”

In 2016, Comey was in the invidious position of directing the FBI during a presidential campaign where one of the candidates – the presumed winner, as it was – was under criminal investigation for the unauthorised and reckless use of a private server and email account for conducting state business. This investigation was brought independently of the FBI, referred to the FBI by the Office of the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community – and, as such, it was made public per the office’s protocol. Which is worth mentioning, given that one of the arguments against Comey is that he spoke publicly on the case during an election. The argument is that Comey was operating a terrible double standard – that Donald Trump was also being investigated by the FBI, yet this investigation remained unpublicised until after the election.

The argument is a poor one. To start, Trump himself wasn’t under investigation – some members of his campaign team were. Given there was no public referral, and the subjects of the investigation were unaware they were being scrutinised by the FBI, the investigation had necessarily to be kept secret.

The second, stronger argument is that Comey broke from a longstanding tradition of the Justice Department of remaining mute or circumspect on matters that could influence an election. Instead, he separated himself from the Justice Department and spoke at length about the case, criticising Clinton for her negligence but saying that the matter would be dropped without prosecution. Sloppiness had been determined, but no criminal intent found. Ordinarily in sensitive matters such as this, the Justice Department – and not the FBI director – would issue one line saying the investigation had been closed, and no charges would be laid.

So why did Comey do it? His critics allege narcissism, grandstanding. He says that the public’s perception of the FBI was at risk, and he wanted to show the American people “their working” – that is, how they’d arrived at the decision. It’s easy to see why the FBI’s reputation may have been threatened: President Barack Obama had twice spoken publicly about the investigation, saying he didn’t believe there was much to it. This was inappropriate, and created the public inference that the president was tipping the scale. Second, TV cameras had captured a chance encounter between the then attorney-general Loretta Lynch and Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac – they had previously shared a flight. Again, Comey thought, it invites an appearance of improper interference – even if there was none. Third, Comey knew that documents were circulating – these remain highly classified, and subsequently mysterious – that Lynch had been acting on Hillary Clinton’s behalf. Comey says he doesn’t credit the allegations and that he has faith in Lynch, but when WikiLeaks began publishing hacked Democratic National Committee emails he thought it highly likely that the material would be made public – further eroding faith that his institution could perform independently from political coercion. This, Comey argues, comprised an exceptional circumstance and his first priority was protecting the public’s faith.

Of course, the most extraordinary development in the email saga came late. Very late. Ten days before the 2016 presidential election, Comey wrote to Congress notifying them that the Clinton case had been reopened. This was made public almost immediately. Democrats were aghast.

Bizarrely, the email investigation was resuscitated courtesy of Anthony Weiner – the disgraced former congressman who notoriously, and habitually, engaged in lascivious message exchanges with young women and girls. Last year, Weiner pleaded guilty to “transferring obscene material” to a minor.

At the time the FBI was investigating this matter, Weiner was married to senior Clinton aide Huma Abedin. On his confiscated laptop they found tens of thousands of his wife’s emails to, from and about Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state. Comey had promised to notify Congress should there be any big change to the investigation’s status – and now there was. The discovered emails dated back to Clinton’s first months as the country’s chief diplomat; the FBI was obliged to analyse them for any evidence of criminal intent, any suggestion that Clinton knew her insecure email system was improper.

Comey’s pickle was that there were simply too many emails to analyse. Their investigative appraisal could not be completed before election day. Comey had a terrible choice – he knew it was lose-lose. “Speaking is really bad,” he said this week. “Concealing is catastrophic. If you conceal the fact that you have restarted the Hillary Clinton email investigation, not in some silly way but in a very, very important way that may lead to a different conclusion, what will happen to the institutions of justice when that comes out?

“Especially, given the world we’re operating in, when Hillary Clinton’s elected president? She’ll be an illegitimate president, but these organisations will never recover from that. You hid from the American people something you knew gave the lie to what you told them in Congress repeatedly.”

If one is clinically prevented from blaming Hillary Clinton for anything – and requires the baroque mess of 2016 to be neatly resolved by a single villain – then we have here Obama, Russia, Mark Zuckerberg, WikiLeaks and Anthony Weiner as more credible candidates than James Comey. God forbid, in this age of hysterical partisanship, that one suggest the best way to avoid the FBI publicly discussing its investigation of you might be to act in a way such that your conduct does not demand investigation.

In her memoir last year, Hillary Clinton wrote that Comey had “shivved” her. The same year, Martha Stewart was more vaguely pejorative about him: “I’m sure I was an example,” she said. “And that’s it.” Which might, to some ears, suggest that a celebrity is somehow inoculated against prosecution, or that anyone who prosecutes a celebrity does so only to cultivate their own fame. Self-reckoning is hard. So are the facts: Clinton was recklessly negligent for four years; Stewart was convicted of insider trading and obstructing justice.

 

Normalisation is a word we hear constantly. It’s everywhere. Ironically, its desperate preponderance may have rendered the word numbing itself. It’s used to warn Americans against normalising the daily assaults of Trump’s White House on truth, law and decency. “Don’t normalise this,” Americans are reminded. The fear is that Trump’s burlesque is so strange, so insistently improvised and aggressive, that America’s citizens – at least those not lit by hysterical partisanship – become numb or disoriented. Perhaps it’s simpler: humans are reliably adaptable, and Americans may simply adjust to Trump as they might to a strange spell of weather.

I would like to think that Comey’s interview this week served as a defibrillator. Wishful thinking, perhaps, when Comey’s interview is just more fodder for aggrieved hacks. But it is very hard to overstate the historic strangeness of a former FBI director likening the president of the United States to a mob boss.

To help ward against normalisation, I’ll repeat that: the former FBI director and deputy attorney-general – and a man who has prosecuted the American mafia – likened the president of the United States to a mob boss. “I’m not trying to, by the way, suggest that President Trump is out breaking legs and, you know, shaking down shopkeepers,” he said this week. “But instead, what I’m talking about is that leadership culture constantly comes back to me when I think about my experience with the Trump administration.

“The loyalty oaths, the boss as the dominant centre of everything – it’s all about how do you serve the boss, what’s in the boss’s interests. It’s the family, the family, the family, the family. That’s why it reminds me so much [of the mafia].”

Comey’s analogy is magnetic, and it’s now difficult to view Trump’s behaviour otherwise. Trump’s surrounding of himself with literal family; his insistence on holding court in the Oval Office behind the Resolute desk, unsubtly and unusually reminding generals and agency heads of his primacy. His insistence on loyalty, at least one example of which may be criminal. His monologues, filled with self-praise and solecism, and spoken with such assured rapidity that they permit no opportunity for his stunned audience to correct him. “It was him talking almost the entire time, which I’ve discovered is something he frequently does,” Comey recalled. “And so it would be monologue in this direction, monologue in that direction, monologue in a different direction. And a constant series of assertions – about the inauguration crowd, about how great my inauguration speech was, about all the free media, earned media I think was his term, that I got during the campaign. On and on and on and on. Everyone agrees, everyone agrees, I did this, I never assaulted these women, I never made fun of a reporter. And I’m sure you’re wondering what question did I ask that would prompt those? None, zero. I didn’t ask any questions that I recall.”

Then there’s the lying, about everything. It happens instinctively for Trump, like breathing. It happens so easily, so frequently, that many close to Trump have come to wonder if he believes everything he says. Trump’s liquid capacity for deception has, for decades, been remarked upon.

 

It is the signature of the mob boss to insist upon the reality of their deceit, and Trump shows no tolerance for criticism. When you’re sufficiently powerful, one can rely upon sycophancy to reinforce your fantasies of potency – but it’s a serious problem when you’re elevated to one of the world’s most complicated and significant jobs. Trump was simply, Comey famously said this week, morally unfit for office. “I don’t buy this stuff about him being mentally incompetent or early stages of dementia,” Comey said. “He strikes me as a person of above average intelligence who’s tracking conversations and knows what’s going on. I don’t think he’s medically unfit to be president. I think he’s morally unfit to be president.

“A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they’re pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it – that person’s not fit to be president of the United States, on moral grounds. And that’s not a policy statement.”

When Comey was asked about the prospects for impeachment this week, his response was surprising. He had a preference for the most democratic removal of the president possible – at the ballot box. But this isn’t the surprising part. Comey said: “I think impeaching and removing Donald Trump from office would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they’re duty bound to do directly. People in this country need to stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values.”

This wasn’t the usual bromide about the power of the ballot box – Comey seemed to be suggesting the American people were party to some moral error, and it was their duty to democratically rectify it.

However one feels about Comey – and it’s likely he will remain a cultural villain – his logic and ethical rumination this week has offered a powerful contrast to the abject vacancy of his nemesis. It was a point he made this week on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Donald Trump’s guiding light is Donald Trump. “He doesn’t seem to have any external reference points in his life,” Comey said. “Ethical leaders make the hardest decisions by looking at some reference point. For some it’s a religious tradition, or history, logic or philosophy. But his reference point seems to be entirely internal. What will fill the hole in me and get me the affirmation I need?”

Comey likens the Trump presidency to a forest fire that is scorching institutions and civic norms. But, Comey says, fires have regenerative potential. That remains his greatest hope for his country, even if his reputation might resist it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 21, 2018 as "Comey, Trump and the Hillary emails". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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