I Was a Top Clinton Aide. Here’s What I Think About Comey’s Book.
I have never met Jim Comey. We overlapped briefly in the Obama administration—he, as FBI director; I as director of communications at the White House—have mutual friends and even the same literary agents. We’ve lived important parallel experiences.In 2016, I led the communications team on Hillary Clinton’s campaign in a race where Comey’s interjections helped throw the election to Donald Trump.
I don’t harbor ill will towards him. Our mutual friends attest to his high character, and his book, A Higher Loyalty, shows him to be a thoughtful person, generous boss and a colleague who—despite being prone to bouts of self-absorption—seems able to laugh at himself. Even though he is a Republican, I have never thought that he allowed his personal political views to drive his decisions as FBI director. I also value Jim Comey’s adherence to a “higher loyalty” beyond the president to upholding the rule of law, and how he stood up to President Trump’s inappropriate pressure even when it was clear it would cost him his job.
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But what Comey’s actions and book reveal is a tendency toward a corrupting belief that his “higher loyalty”—which lifted him above partisan politics—somehow bestowed upon him the right to take actions that were well beyond his role as FBI director. It’s a very dangerous attitude, and one that resulted in him taking unprecedented actions in the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, with devastating consequences.
In 2013, when President Barack Obama nominated Comey to head the FBI, he seemed like an ideal FBI nominee for a Democratic president. He was a Republican who had credibility with Democrats for famously standing up to President George W. Bush’s staff when they made a surprise hospital visit in an attempt to get an ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft to approve a domestic surveillance program the Department of Justice believed to be unlawful. Comey was the deputy attorney general at the time, and I respected his willingness to stand up to the White House in defense of the law and his boss. But it made me uneasy that he made sure the press knew all about his heroic stand. In my experience, officials like that have a hard time staying in his or her lane and out of the spotlight.
My unease grew in October 2015, when I watched from the campaign trail as Comey gave a speech in which he speculated that a recent rise in murder rates could be due to a “chill wind” police felt in reaction to protests and threats against them after the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. It was a surprising speech. The FBI Director had veered from the Bureau’s purview of investigating crime into the Department of Justice’s purview of making policy, something I found to be a troubling encroachment and one he would repeat with devastating consequences during the Clinton email investigation.
I do believe that if it were not for Comey’s letter, Clinton would have won. Reading between the lines in his memoir, it’s clear that Comey also believes this to be true. He doesn’t say that, but that’s my impression from the complicated and sometimes contradictory explanations he offers of his conduct, as well as the anecdotes he chooses to share of President Obama and other Democrats saying nice things to him after the election (I didn’t read their comments as absolving him of responsibility, by the way, they were just kind).
I want to be clear: I am not saying Jim Comey bears sole responsibility for the Clinton campaign’s loss. There were many factors that led to that outcome, and his action was just the final one.
His July 5th press conference, in which he appointed himself Hillary Clinton’s investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury, was his original sin. No FBI director had ever made such a public pronouncement at the conclusion of an investigation. Comey justifies the press conference by writing that he sought to wrap up the investigation in a way that would “persuade a majority of fair and open-minded Americans” that the investigation had been done in an honest and non-political manner.
It’s a laudatory goal. But it’s also not his job. If it is anyone’s duty to worry about the public’s reaction to an FBI investigation, it is the job of the Attorney General and his or her deputies. Ironically, Comey’s drive to appear non-political drove him head first into a political maelstrom. And once he had established the practice of publicly commenting on the Clinton case, it made his next devastating step to send the October 28 letter all the easier to justify in his own mind.