The Slatest

The Liberal Attacks on Jim Comey Are Surprisingly Similar to the Conservative Ones

James Comey is sworn in during a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill June 8, 2017 in Washington, DC.
James Comey is sworn in during a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill on June 8 in Washington.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

With the release of Jim Comey’s new book, renewed attention is being paid to the former FBI director’s controversial decisions surrounding the Hillary Clinton email investigation.

On the right, this has taken the form of efforts to impugn Comey’s integrity for making choices that directly benefited them, along with melodramatic descriptions of Comey’s supposed lack of “loyalty” to liberals. Sean Hannity, for instance, described Comey as throwing “former Attorney General Loretta Lynch absolutely under the bus.”

This argument views law enforcement as another arena in the tribal political battle between red and blue, a proposition Comey has vocally tried to reject.

In attempting to relitigate Comey’s 2016 Clinton email controversy decisions, though, some progressives have mirrored the conservative framing of Comey as just another political hack.

Nowhere has this argument and its weaknesses been clearer than in a piece by Greg Sargent in Tuesday’s Washington Post, which argued that Comey just made a “remarkable new admission” about his Clinton email decision.

First, like others, Sargent fails to address Comey’s substantive explanation for why he says he did what he did. What’s worse, he mischaracterizes Comey’s statements in order to imply that Comey himself is acknowledging that he should have made another choice.

Sargent cites a response from Comey during an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep as the “remarkable” admission in question. In it, Comey addresses the notion that he could have chosen not to make his bureau’s findings on Clinton public if he had just ignored the cable news chatter:

INSKEEP: Would it perhaps have been a better course of action to resist all that shouting out there and do something closer to what you would normally do?

COMEY: Look, I meant what I said earlier—a reasonable person might have done that. I think that would have been a mistake …

Sargent argues that Comey is conceding something major here:

[It] is an admission that the cable news chatter partly influenced him, and that it would have been reasonable to refrain from doing what he did end up doing.

Notably, and importantly, Sargent ignores what those “other factors” were. To summarize (without arguing for or against) Comey’s reasons for believing “the attorney general of the United States could not credibly announce this result”:

• Comey blamed President Barack Obama for publicly—and pre-emptively—saying the investigation would yield “no there.”

• Comey feared a classified document with unverified and likely untrue claims—reportedly of Russian origin—could be used to discredit the probe.

• Comey said Lynch broke protocol in insisting that he call the probe a “matter” rather than an “investigation” and he was concerned by how neatly this lined up with euphemistic Clinton campaign rhetoric.

• Comey said “the biggest brick of all” in the load of public missteps was Lynch meeting very publicly on a tarmac for a one-on-one conversation with former President Bill Clinton, the husband of the subject of the investigation.

Comey has testified under oath that most of these factors led to his decision to publicly describe the findings of the investigation (a step, he has argued, was not without precedent in high-profile political cases).

Comey’s liberal critics could argue these points on their merits, but they generally don’t. They could also argue—as conservatives do—that he’s been lying (under oath at times) about all of these reasons, having invented an ex post facto justification for a mostly political decision.

Liberals don’t argue that either, maybe because it would paint the main witness in the obstruction case against Donald Trump as someone who casually lies under oath.

Sargent’s most damning conclusion, ultimately, is a complete mischaracterization of what Comey actually said.

“Worse, Comey also revealed that not [publicizing his findings as he did] would have been a perfectly appropriate outcome,” Sargent writes.

Comey never says anything like this. He says a “reasonable” person might have come up with a different decision, one that he still believes would have been “a mistake,” i.e., not “a perfectly appropriate outcome.” Comey is merely conceding that “reasonable” people can have differences of opinion. Indeed, Comey’s desired reasonable outcome—Lynch appointing a special counsel—actually would have been far more damaging to Democrats than what he decided was within his own power to do.

The principal evidence used in recent days to portray Comey as a hack has been a statement in his book that “it is entirely possible” that the polls in Clinton’s favor played a role in how he handled the case. For this, he has been pilloried by both sides.

But it is not the confession either side is making it out to be. Comey’s intention is obviously to acknowledge that virtually nobody—including himself—is entirely immune from their political environment. This basic—and honest—acknowledgment doesn’t make his belief in his own reasoning any less true.

In fact, in the same interview that Sargent cites as evidence that Comey’s decision was dictated by the politics of cable news, Comey says “even if cable TV punditry had never been born” he would have had the same reasons for doing what he did.

Reasonable people can disagree on whether or not Comey made the right decision. The attacks on his motives by those who would prop him up as the chief witness against the current president, however, have been entirely unreasonable.