If a FBI director is doing his job, we probably should neither see nor hear of him much on television.
The FBI director by his very office holds enormous power. And like the IRS director, by definition he or she must show restraint given the vast resources at his discretion and thus the potential for abuse. In other words, we want a FBI director to exude coolness, stay dispassionate, and remain professional. I don’t think that has ever been a description that fit Director James Comey.
Comey’s nadir came in the summer of 2016 when, confused over the investigatory role of the FBI and the prosecutorial prerogatives of the Justice Department, he de facto turned the FBI into investigator, prosecutor, judge, and jury in presenting damning evidence against Hillary Clinton, then nullifying it, then reopening the case, then re-reopening it and backing off — all in front of television cameras in the midst of a heated presidential campaign.
And then after doing all that, Comey confused the act with its intent, and as a veritable legislator reinvented statutes about communicating classified information by suggesting that even if one likely committed a felony, but did not intend to (not a proven assertion), then it wasn’t really a felony.
Comey’s behavior was never properly addressed. His recent performance in front of Congress likely sealed his fate. We do not expect our FBI director to whine, in teenager fashion, about being treated unfairly, as he alleged when Loretta Lynch dumped the Clinton e-mail scandal in his lap. (A good FBI director, of course, would simply have run the investigation, presented the findings to the Justice Department, and then have let them deal with it (if not Lynch, then someone else). Comey misrepresented the volume of Huma Abedin’s improper e-mails; and in general always fell back on loud assertions of FBI integrity rather than displaying it through his behavior and statements.
Nor did Comey have a reservoir of good will. Long ago, he acted bizarrely in the John Ashcroft hospitalization melodrama; he was responsible for the career of Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald who miscarried justice in the case of Scooter Libby (not to mention Fitzgerald’s own subsequent Conrad Black prosecution). His legacy is that Hillary Clinton paid no price for illegally setting up an improper e-mail server, destroying evidence, and communicating classified material in an insecure fashion.
Comey seems to think that he could freely discuss the charges of Russian collusion, but not so transparently the far stronger evidence of unlawful unmasking of Americans caught up in (or in fact targeted by) government surveillance — apparently in understandable fear that the Democrats and media posed the greater danger to his career.
Politically, Comey’s thirst for celebrity rankled his own bureau and, finally, achieved the difficult result of alienating both Republicans (who thought he was an Obama operative in service to Hillary) and Democrats (who thought he was a tool of the FBI, freelancing to sink Hillary). Usually being roundly distrusted would be a sign of disinterested non-partisanship. But in Comey’s case, the universal disdain was more likely rare unity that Comey lacked the temperament to run the FBI and had created a climate of fear that at any given moment a Comey press conference would destroy someone’s career without commensurate investigation and evidence.
Democrats, who despised Comey (see Hillary’s latest whine) and blamed him for Trump’s election, are already calling the firing cruel, mean spirited, and proof of a Trump conspiracy (why would Trump fire and set loose on the media the man who supposedly had handed him the election?); Republicans will shrug that long ago Comey should have been fired (the entire Clinton investigations, including the quid pro quo Clinton Foundation matters, were sloppy and amateurish), but the timing and methods of his firing seemed momentarily messy.
The proper analysis is probably twofold: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — roundly praised in bipartisan fashion (please read his detailed memo critiquing Comey’s performance) — wanted to start out with a clean slate and not have a damaged-goods FBI-director albatross around his neck for the next four years — in the contexts of the past recusals of Lynch and then Jeff Sessions.
Second, the surveillance/unmasking scandal remains a potential bombshell and it was probably felt that Comey (who was loquacious about the collusion charge, but suddenly silent about likely felonious unmasking) could not be trusted to conduct a timely, fair, and prompt investigation. (Would he have had another press conference announcing that surveillance statutes had been violated by unmasking, but that “no reasonable prosecutor” would pursue such a case, supposedly given its lack of criminal intent?)
The hysteria will subside, because in the end Comey has no supporters left, and lots of critics — he will be missed by very few.