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Comey, Political Rorschach Test

Terry H. Schwadron

Sept. 2, 2019

What are we supposed to make of James B. Comey Jr.? More specifically, what do we learn from handling of complaints against him about our government?

The former FBI director is a hero of sorts for standing up to a bullying Donald Trump, who wanted loyalty over adherence to law, and, in effect, launching what would become the Mueller probe of all-things Russia. Of course, Comey is also the guy who decided on his own to influence the 2016 elections by calling Hillary Clinton “careless” in handling of classified information in e-mails — twice — seemingly helping to undercut her candidacy.

And now he is the same guy who, under attack from Trump for leaking classified information himself — about meeting with Trump — who has come through a Department of Justice internal review with a finding that he did nothing of the sort.

Here’s what everyone agrees on, before coming up with different interpretations: After private meetings with Trump, Comey memorialized the meeting in notes, non-classified information, and then upon his firing by Trump, gave them to a friend to share with The New York Times.

Michael Horowitz, the inspector general, rejected the idea that this involved classified information or that it broke a law. But he did criticize the act for breaking FBI internal procedures, adding that it was not a good idea.

Comey himself said thanks, and asked in a tweet where his apology was from Trump, who had accused him of breaking the law by mishandling classified information.

But rather than silence Trump and Republicans bent on villainizing Comey and other investigators, they are already using it to smear Comey anew. “[F]ormer FBI Director put partisanship and personal ambition over patriotism and his legal obligations to the American people,” Rep. Doug Collins, the ranking minority on the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.

Jeremy Stahl, writing in Slatemagazine, said, “If you actually read the 61-page IG report in full, though, it makes clear that not only did Trump fabricate the principal charge that Comey leaked classified information, but the secondary charge for which the IG has now slapped Comey’s wrist is mind-numbingly dumb.”

As The Post noted, James B. Comey has always been a complicated man in American politics. . . . So, it should be no surprise that a long-anticipated inspector general’s report on Comey’s leaking to the media — perhaps the final chapter in Comey’s long career in public service — should provide a mixed bag.”

What I come away with is a sense that there is little these days in the public affairs of these United States on which we can agree — even when we’ve had an investigation and ruling. So, a new measure of sea rise won’t satsify Climate Change deniers, and another measure of economic success won’t make anti-Trumpists happy. We’re stuck in our tenets about how the world works, and hoping that the facts fall into line with the arguments already laid out.

It seems significant to me, for example, that this IG found that there is “no evidence” that he or his attorneys leaked classified information — the substance of what Donald Trump has used his office to promote at least 10 times, calling for Comey’s prosecution, along with other FBI officials involved in launching the Mueller probe.

It also seems important that the FBI have some kind of protocols to which it sticks. It is apparent from the report that Comey was supposed to regard any notes as FBI property, and that he should not have given them to others even in what Comey regarded as an extraordinary circumstance. The report largely ignores the substance of Comey’s disclosure, which directly led to his testimony before Congress about presidential obstruction of justice and a 182-page report documenting that obstruction and other apparent crimes, in effect the act of a whistleblower.

I don’t agree with that finding, but I can understand it. Donald Trump’s presidency is running well outside of the rulebook, and it seems weird that we have one set of rules for those who criticize the president and another for an increasingly lawless president himself.

Indeed, the Department of Jusitice has a wealth of rules, protocols and interpretations that mostly are not public, unless they emerge at a particular moment, that govern how laws are to be enforced. For example, the protocol under which a sitting president cannot be charged with a federal crime is just an internal ruling, not a written law or court finding. Christian Farias, a New York Times editorial writer, outlines in an article in Politico.comthat there are hundreds of such rulings that have a real and marked effect on how laws are enforced.

By following the rules, we would have no Mueller investigation, no disclosure of serious cooperation with Russians, no details of obstruction of justice. Of course, we now do have those things and because we have a loyal Senate Republican majority, we won’t do anything about them.

“We’re closing the chapter on Comey’s time as FBI director rather appropriately, with a political Rorschach test in which people can see, emphasize and believe exactly what they want about him,” argued the Post. Comey has earned an asterisk in the history books as an enigmatic, interesting gadfly as well as a respected lawman.


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