As Hillary Clinton might say, “At this point, what difference does it make?”
That’s the reaction many Americans might have to the revelation that former FBI director James Comey was preparing to exonerate the Democratic presidential candidate in the e-mail scandal that threatened to destroy her chances of victory before his investigation had concluded. A lot has happened since Comey made his announcement in July 2016 that although Clinton’s conduct was negligent, her actions weren’t criminal — and she wouldn’t be prosecuted. With the focus on President Trump and allegations of collusion between his campaign and the Russians riveting the media since January, the charges against the former secretary of state have largely faded from the news. Except, that is, Comey’s various statements about her last year and how they might have impacted Trump’s decision to ultimately fire the FBI director.
But the uncovering of the memo that Comey had begun to draft prior to the interview of Clinton and many other key witnesses has angered Senate Republicans and, predictably, generated an outraged presidential tweet. But while re-litigating the e-mail scandal may be moot, the notion that Comey wasn’t straight with the public about the Clinton probe will have an impact on the way it thinks about the investigation into Trump’s conduct, particularly his dismissal of the FBI director. If nothing else, after months of congressional Republicans feeling increasingly alienated from the administration, the Comey revelations will drive many in the GOP back toward Trump.
The irony here is that the Comey documents were produced as a result of complaints about him from Democrats, not Republicans.
In the aftermath of his unusual press conference in which he took it upon himself to declare that Clinton would not be prosecuted, Democrats were furious about the criticisms he made of her egregious conduct and lax approach to security questions when it came to classified material. At that time, Democrats felt that Comey’s comments constituted a violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from partisan activity during the course of their professional duties. Though many Republicans felt that Comey’s decision aided and abetted Clinton’s candidacy, Democrats thought his candor was a gift to the GOP. That led to an investigation that produced the memo.
The proof that Comey seems to have already made up his mind long before all the evidence was in is, at the very least, curious. It also calls into question the veracity of some of his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in which he said his decision to announce the results of the probe last summer was motivated by Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s tarmac conversation with former president Bill Clinton, which seemed to call her objectivity into question. As Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley and fellow Republican Lindsey Graham put it, Comey’s attitude appeared to be “conclusions first, fact-gathering second.”
Comey would intervene in the election again in a way that hurt Clinton in October when he re-opened the investigation because of e-mails supposedly found on the computer used by former congressman Anthony Weiner for illegal sexual communications with a minor. That turned out to be a dead end, and Comey soon told the country to forget about it — but there’s no question that it contributed to Clinton losing an election that most observers thought she had in the bag.
No matter what you think about what Comey said or did, however, there’s no way to rewind the clock back to the summer of 2016 when a prosecution would have ended Clinton’s hopes of being president or to last October when Comey keeping silent about Weiner’s computer might have helped Clinton win some of the crucial states she lost to enable Trump’s Electoral College victory.
No matter what you think about what Comey said or did, however, there’s no way to rewind the clock back to the summer of 2016.
Nor does it make Trump’s ham-handed firing of Comey any more defensible, especially since he could never keep his story straight about his reasons for doing so. Comey’s handling of the Clinton e-mail probe may seem even more reprehensible than it did before. But the not unfounded belief that Trump fired him because of his refusal to publicly exonerate the president in the Russian-collusion case — despite saying so privately — is the engine that created the Mueller investigation. It is on the outcome of that probe, and not the rehashing of Clinton’s woes, that the administration’s future depends.
That said, the more the public learns about Comey’s double-dealing and self-serving approach to his job, the less likely most Republicans are to think Mueller’s deep dive into Trumpworld is justified. Many GOP voters may be disgusted with Trump’s conduct, especially after Charlottesville. But the sketchy way Comey exonerated Clinton still grates on them. That doesn’t convince the rest of the country not to despise Trump. But if Republicans stay loyal to him, he’s in little danger of being abandoned by his party, let alone impeached and removed from office.
Nothing that we learn about Comey or why he really deserved to be fired long before Trump took office will fix what’s wrong with the administration or even do much to deter Mueller if he is determined to collect the scalps of Trump and his senior aides and family members. But as the attempt to sink Trump continues, Trump needs a party that he has done much to alienate to stick with him. So long as both the congressional GOP and rank-and-file conservatives are still focused on the partisan battles over Clinton, they will remain on his side in the scandal wars yet to come. Despite his pose as a Boy Scout, Comey is the embodiment of our hyper-partisan political age and the way it can corrupt even apolitical institutions like the FBI. The more we hear of him, the more likely it is that even Trump critics will be reminded that partisanship is the only thing that matters in Washington.