The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal yesterday signaled what may become the first major battle of the Trump administration, when it called upon FBI director James Comey to resign. “[I]f the director has demonstrated anything in the last year, is that he’s lost the trust of nearly everyone in Washington, along with every American who believes the FBI must maintain its reputation as a politically impartial federal agency.”) If he doesn’t quit on their motion, the WSJ editorialists continued,
Jeff Sessions should invite him for a meeting, after he is confirmed as Attorney General and ask him to resign. If Mr. Comey declines, Donald Trump should fire him in the best interests of the nation’s most important law enforcement agency.
In a season of bad ideas, the proposition that Donald Trump should have his own FBI director is the worst one yet. It should be laughed off and then dismissed.
It won’t be, though, because Comey has become the focal point of dissatisfaction by leaders of both parties and pundits left and right. Democrats blame him for swinging the election by notifying Congress that a small cache of previously unexamined Hillary Clinton emails had turned up. Republicans blame him for absolving Clinton of criminal conduct in the private email server.
Last week Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz announced he would undertake a wide-ranging review of FBI actions before the election. Comey welcomed the investigation, and the rest of us should, too. It will take a few months to complete. Horowitz mentioned six areas of specific concern.
The first instance was Comey’s decision last July to call a press conference to announce the results of a year-long investigation requested by Congressional Republicans. He excoriated Hillary Clinton for “extremely careless” conduct in her use of a private server for State Department business but added that carelessness not amount to criminal conduct.
The second occasion came in October, ten days before the election, when Comey wrote to the same Congressional leaders to say that a small trove of unexamined Clinton emails had been located in an unrelated investigation. Three days before the election, he announced that they had been found to contain nothing new.
The third topic that the Inspector General promised to investigate has to do with the circumstances that led Comey to announce the discovery of the new emails. According to stories by Devlin Barrett, of the WSJ. Comey was dealing with furious dissent over the Clinton investigation in at least four FBI field offices – New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Little Rock – offices in which agents had extended their investigation to practices of the Clinton Foundation. Candidate Trump himself surmised as much, telling a Colorado crowd in late October, “I’ll bet you without any knowledge there was a revolt in the FBI.”
A fourth matter concerns whether FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe should have been recused from the case, either before or after his wife, a candidate for the Virginia Senate, accepted a large donation from a prominent Clinton backer, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe.
A fifth involved the use of an FBI Twitter account to publicize the release, days before the election, of 129 pages of internal documents under terms of a Freedom of Information Act request – material pertaining to Bill Clinton’s pardon of financier Marc Rich nearly sixteen years before.
A sixth pertained to some potentially inappropriate contact between Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Peter Kadzik and John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chair. WikiLeaks hacks disclosed a series of emails between the two; Kadzik had previously been Podesta’s attorney.
The office of the Justice Department Inspector General, created in 1989, celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary a couple of years ago. Horowitz, a longtime Justice Department and Sentencing Commission administrator, worked briefly for Comey twenty-five years ago, as a prosecutor in the Southern District of New York. The fourth attorney to serve as IG, he was sworn in on April 16, 2012.
The irony, as recounted here in Hero in a Tough Spot, in October, is that Comey is famously perpendicular to the political special interests that routinely test any FBI director. No doubt that the courses that Comey chose in July and October were irregular; in each case he was dealing with an irregular situation – a Congressional attempt to stampede the Bureau in the summer, the prospect of open revolt among its rank-in-file two weeks before the election. To have explained matter more fully would have almost certainly made things worse; to have done nothing would have risked mutiny, a disaster.
The FBI, the nation’s top law-enforcement agency, is deeply divided along partisan lines. Some significant faction still want to send Hillary Clinton to prison. Agents have been communicating indirectly with advisers to the president-elect and to the press. Strong and principled management at the top is required. Democrats and sensible Republicans should sit back and wait for the Inspector General’s account. There should be no doubt that Comey, appointed by Obama in 2013 to a ten-year term, is the man to give it.