Politics & Policy

Comey and the Expansion of Cynicism

Comey on Capitol Hill, July 6, 2016. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)
Comey was not like Trump and Hillary: We didn’t expect him to lie.

It turns out that, in an election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, James Comey’s lies are the worst of them all.

On Monday, the director of the FBI laid out an ironclad case that the former U.S. secretary of state and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee mishandled classified information — on no less than 110 separate occasions. She set up “several” unauthorized servers, which she used to transmit and store intelligence up to and including “Special Access” material, the government’s most sensitive information. She failed to provide all work-related e-mails to the State Department, in violation of her duties under the Federal Records Act. And her conduct put national-security intelligence at risk. In Comey’s words, “There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position, or in the position of those government employees with whom she was corresponding about these matters, should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.” She was, he said, “extremely careless.”

On Thursday, under questioning by members of the House Oversight Committee, Comey even added to the list. He testified that Clinton gave people without the proper clearances access to classified information, and when asked by Representative Will Hurd (R., Texas) whether anyone in the FBI has a server in his basement, he replied, “They’d better not.”

Yet Comey declined to recommend charges against Clinton, despite the clear wording of the relevant statute in the federal penal code (which Comey effectively had to rewrite to give his decision some superficial legal heft). Anyone paying attention to the FBI director’s statements watched him solemnly pronounce that 2 + 2 = 3.

This might seem like just another in the series of fibs, frauds, and outright fabrications that have characterized the current presidential season. But it is worse.

Hillary Clinton is a liar, in the Machiavellian mold. She lies when it helps her. Her husband’s affairs, her many scandals, her political beliefs — Clinton concocts lies according to careful calculations.

EDITORIAL: Comey’s Risible Recommendations

Donald Trump is a liar, too, though in the mold of the fabulist. He lies when it helps him, and he also lies when it doesn’t. He lies about his past positions and his statements, but also about his sexual conquests and his golf score and buying a house in Connecticut. He doesn’t operate by calculation as much as by impulse.

In both cases, though, no one expects anything different. Dishonesty has been priced into both candidates; it’s the expectation. Hillary’s supporters do not support her because she’s honest. They support her because they are reasonably certain where she stands on abortion and the minimum wage and student-loan debt. She’s fudging her support for Black Lives Matter? Yeah, well, politics ain’t beanbag. Likewise, Trump supporters don’t care about his lies, because they know (or think they know) where he stands on immigration and the Supreme Court and the Islamic State. He’s lying about his knowledge of David Duke? Eh, nobody’s perfect.

#share#But dishonesty was not priced into James Comey. Until Monday, the FBI director — a Republican appointed to high offices in both Republican and Democratic administrations — had a favorable reputation among people on both sides of the aisle. It was generally assumed that Comey’s recommendation in the Clinton investigation, whatever it turned out to be, would be respectable, the outcome of an investigation by competent law-enforcement professionals. Instead, he ended a scathing accounting of Clinton’s violations with what can only be considered a logically untenable conclusion. He willfully ignored the clear words of the relevant law. Comey is not a fool. He opted for deception.

In doing so, he caused the cynicism with which most people now treat the highest ranks of the political apparatus to grow. Going forward, dishonesty will now be priced into James Comey, and probably the agency he supervises. An institution that commanded credibility in the eyes of most ordinary people now stinks of corruption.

RELATED: Comey: A Theory

An all-consuming distrust — the end toward which we seem to be moving — is a dangerous state of affairs. People need to be able to trust that they are getting more or less the truth from somewhere. There need to be authorities whose verdicts line up with commonsense judgments. But more and more leaders of key institutions, from government to media to academia, have subordinated fair-minded, good-faith assessments of the passing scene to expedience. Where in something that looks and swims and quacks like a duck most people see a duck, these people claim to see a flamingo or a porcupine or a Nissan Sentra — because it suits their political interests to do so.

#related#That situation cannot last, at least not in a democratic system. Either people will bend further and further to the weight and expanse of deception, or they’ll snap. They’ll divest themselves of their rational faculties and pledge allegiance to like-minded ideological authorities — that is, they’ll ensconce themselves in vicious tribal loyalties — or they’ll take drastic measures to restore some modicum of sanity.

This election has given us a sample of both reactions. (Some of the support for Trump could even be seen as a confused mixture of both.) But the mania that this election has occasioned will be far worse in the future, if our leaders continue to tell us that we cannot trust our own eyes — and if we continue to let them do so.

It should have been clear that more than just an indictment was at stake when James Comey took the podium.

– Ian Tuttle is a National Review Institute Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism.

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