White House

James Comey’s Stellar Windiness

James Comey poses with a copy of his book A Higher Loyalty at a Barnes & Noble store in New York City, April 18, 2018. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
The enormously hyped memoir reads as if some of the best parts were strategically left out.

A Higher Loyalty, by former FBI director James Comey, is far more fascinating for its odd omissions than for what it says.

For starters, after 277 pages, readers still don’t have a clear picture of what Comey thinks of Hillary Clinton. Early coverage of the book focused on the former FBI director’s quasi-apology – “I have read that she has felt anger toward me personally, and I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry that I couldn’t do a better job explaining to her and her supporters why I made the decisions I made.” But Comey doesn’t apologize for any decisions or actions: “Even knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it differently.” For a fierce Trump critic and celebrity hero of the Resistance, Comey never quite gets around to saying anything nice about Hillary Clinton.

One can’t help but wonder if there’s a longer, unedited, blunter version of the manuscript sitting in a hard drive somewhere in the offices of Flatiron Books, because every now and then, Comey goes right up the precipice of declaring, “Look, America, if you don’t want the FBI investigating your presidential candidate, don’t nominate a duplicitous grifter with a graveyard’s worth of skeletons in every closet.”

Comey first crossed paths with the Clintons way back in 1995, when he briefly worked for the Senate committee investigating the Whitewater scandal, looking into an allegation that Hillary Clinton removed documents from the office of Vince Foster on the night of his suicide. In 2001, as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, he was in charge of the FBI’s investigation into the pardon of Marc Rich, indicted on 65 criminal counts of income-tax evasion, wire fraud, racketeering, and trading with Iran during the hostage crisis.

Comey mentions that the New York Times editorial board called Bill Clinton’s pardon of Rich “a shocking abuse of federal power,” and he adds that Clinton’s pardon of a fugitive was, to his knowledge, unprecedented. But he also writes, “In the end, we did not find sufficient evidence to bring any charges and closed the case.” From his mention of the Times editorial and the unprecedented nature of the pardon, we get a vague sense that Comey disapproved of Clinton’s pardon, but no real elaboration about how this shaped Comey’s perspective on him.

He moves on to the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, and quickly swats away the claim from Clinton defenders that this was merely a harmless mistake. “There were thirty-six e-mail chains about topics that could cause ‘serious’ damage to national security and eight that could be expected to cause ‘exceptionally grave’ damage to the security of the United States if released.” But he spends a lot of time discussing the difficulty of proving intent. Does Comey really believe that every one of these emails was an innocent mistake, and that Clinton never realized what she was doing?

Comey offers a passage lamenting the absurdity of Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s request that he refer to the questioning about Clinton’s e-mails as a “matter,” not an “investigation.” But Comey went out and did it anyway, telling reporters that he was confident that “personnel assigned to the matter” would be “able to do it in a professional, prompt, and independent way.”

Comey points out that in October 2015 and April 2016, President Obama declared that Clinton had merely made a “mistake” that had not endangered national security, but laments, “To this day, I don’t know why he spoke about the case publicly and seemed to absolve her before a final determination had been made.”

Is it really that much of an impenetrable mystery? Come on, you used to run the FBI, you should be able to figure that out. Comey lays out the evidence that Lynch and Obama were more partisan than appropriate, but he can’t bring himself to indict them. (Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when Comey declines to indict a prominent Democrat.)

Despite a great deal of glowing praise for President Obama, Comey also mentions that in a September 2016 meeting about Russian efforts to influence the election, Obama scoffed that Putin’s efforts to influence the outcome or erode faith in America’s election systems had not amounted to much, declaring of the Russian leader, “He backed the wrong horse.” At least Obama didn’t dismiss Moscow’s operatives as just the jayvee team.

One of the book’s genuine holy-smokes moments is the revelation that in May 2016, Comey was infuriated enough with the foot-dragging over access to Clinton and her staff’s laptop computers that he was ready to recommend an independent counsel.

“In May, I went to [then–deputy attorney general] Sally Yates and told her this was dragging on too long. We were now weeks from the conventions and I was close to the point where I was going to recommend the appointment of a special prosecutor. . . . I said that soon it would be too late for this Department of Justice to complete the investigation without grievous damage to public faith in our work. It would require a prosecutor outside the control of the political leadership of the department.” Within a week or two, the Department of Justice had negotiated a deal for access to the laptops. One can only imagine how differently the election would have unfolded if Comey had called for an independent counsel right before the Democrats’ nominating convention.

In her interview with the FBI, Hillary Clinton said she “couldn’t recall” details more than 39 times, including whether she had ever been briefed about how to handle classified information (despite signed forms declaring she had), which aides had access to her BlackBerry and email accounts, whether she had ever seen anything in her emails that was classified, why the State Department couldn’t provide her with a secure BlackBerry, whether she had ever received any FOIA requests related to her email, or whether she had used an iPad Mini while she was secretary of state. Some of these convenient memory lapses contradicted her past public statements; in a 2015 campaign appearance, Clinton assured the public, “I did not email any classified material to anyone on my email. There is no classified material. I’m certainly well-aware of the classification requirements.” Yet Comey concluded after the FBI interview: “There was nothing in her comments that we could prove was a lie beyond a reasonable doubt. . . . Whether we believed her or not, we had no significant proof otherwise.”

Fine, but did Comey believe her answers? He doesn’t say.

Comey’s the straight-arrow, by-the-book boy scout, so ruled by his conscience that he confesses when he regifts neckties. Hillary Clinton is the high-powered official who’s always seeking out exemptions from and exceptions to disclosure and ethics rules — not using state.gov email and thus escaping FOIA and government-archiving regulations, not reporting all foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation as promised, forgetting to get State Department approval for foreign donations to the foundations as promised, and arranging for top aide Huma Abedin to work for the State Department and a private consulting firm simultaneously.

Does any of this bother straight-arrow Comey? Again, he doesn’t say. Dudley Do-Right can never quite come out and say that the Clintons, among the most powerful figures in America for decades, habitually ignore the rules and laws.

Andrew McCabe, Comey’s deputy director for most of 2016, is missing from vast swaths of the book. Beginning in February, McCabe oversaw the investigation, but he isn’t mentioned in any section involving the investigation into Clinton’s e-mails until late October 2016.

Comey does write earlier: “Each of my advisors undoubtedly had their own political opinions and views. They were human beings, after all. They also had spouses, friends, or family members with their own points of view as well. But I didn’t know what those views were.” Also: “I never heard an argument or observation I thought came from a political bias. Never.” Those are presumably veiled references to McCabe and his wife, Jill, who ran for state senate in Virginia and received significant financial assistance from Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Clinton ally. Comey discusses the McCabes in a brief passage much later in the book, assuring readers that “McCabe had long considered himself a Republican” and that “McCabe was a true professional . . . an honorable person, not motivated by politics.” That’s a little harder to swallow after the FBI inspector general’s report concluded that he repeatedly lied to investigators and his own boss about his role in leaks, under oath three times, and tried to divert blame by accusing others.

A core element of Trump’s hyperbolic “deep state” defense is that everyone in the federal government either is out to get him or has an axe to grind against him. Contemplate that as Comey describes the October 27, 2016, meeting where he and his top staff concluded they have to inform Congress that the investigation into Clinton’s e-mails was reopened:

As we were arriving at this decision, one of the lawyers on the team asked a searing question. She was a brilliant and quiet person, whom I sometimes had to invite into the conversation. “Should you consider that what you are about to do may help elect Donald Trump president?” she asked.

I paused for several seconds. It was of course the question on everyone’s mind, whether they expressed it out loud or not.

“It is a great question,” I said, “but not for a moment can I consider it. Because down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent force in American life. If we start making decisions based on whose political fortunes will be affected, we are lost.”

The notion that everyone around Comey at the top level of the FBI hesitated to keep his promise to inform Congress because it could help Trump win the election doesn’t exactly dispel Trump’s claim of widespread bias against him. In Comey’s late-November private Oval Office meeting with the president, he blurts out to the outgoing Obama, “I dread the next four years.”

This is not a conspiracy of shadowy cigarette-smoking government men out of The X-Files, but it points to a disconcerting groupthink: Just about everybody at the top levels of the FBI, Department of Justice, U.S. national-security agencies, and the Obama administration thought Trump was a corrupt, deranged loon. No doubt Trump earned a lot of that criticism, but that groupthink meant the FBI’s top brass was ready to believe the worst about Trump, no matter the origin.

That disdain for Trump brings us to the book’s brief, fuzzy discussion of the Steele dossier. If Comey had any qualms or worries about using a dossier paid for in part by the Clinton campaign and the DNC, he doesn’t mention it. Nor does he indicate whether he thought it was ethical and aboveboard to describe the political motivations of the source in a footnote to a FISA warrant. Does Comey have any queasiness about Clinton hatchet man Sid Blumenthal’s being involved? Mister “Higher Loyalty” doesn’t seem to find anything unethical or troubling about any of that.

Finally, Comey’s description of the incident that built his reputation, the “showdown” in Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital room, is almost funny for how it glides over what actually was at stake in the conflict and how little anything changed because of the showdown.

In early 2004, Jack Goldsmith, head of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, concluded that Stellar Wind, a program of NSA surveillance activities, had been authorized by his predecessors on legally dubious grounds. Comey backed Goldsmith’s assessment and insisted that, despite the program’s effectiveness, the DOJ could not sign off on it – never mind that Attorney General Ashcroft had approved its extension every few weeks since October 2001.

Shortly after 9/11, President Bush’s legal directives stated that the NSA could “acquire” phone and email metadata — logs showing who contacted whom, but not what they said — if at least one end was foreign, or if a specific message was linked to terrorism. But the Department of Justice concluded that the agency was apparently gathering purely domestic metadata in bulk. Comey generically describes this as “the NSA was engaging in activity that went beyond what was authorized.” (Comey is not protecting classified information here; the details of Stellar Wind, how it operated, and the Bush administration’s internal fights about it were reported by the New York Times in 2015.)

Attorney General John Ashcroft fell ill, and the day before the current authorization order expired, Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales headed to George Washington University hospital to get Ashcroft to sign the extension. Comey called then–FBI director Robert Mueller and they raced to get to Ashcroft first, with Comey asking Mueller to instruct the FBI agents to defend Comey if Card and Gonzales’s Secret Service detail tried to remove him from the hospital room.

But once everyone arrived, Ashcroft told Card and Gonzales that he wasn’t the attorney general while he’s being treated; Comey was. It is hard to overstate how dramatically Comey paints the scene, quoting Mueller as telling Ashcroft, “In every man’s life there comes a time when the good Lord tests him. You passed your test tonight.”

Eight days later, President Bush signed a new authorization proclaiming that the NSA could “obtain and retain” metadata in general, and that the agency would be deemed to have “acquired” only those records that analysts specifically “searched for and retrieved” within the larger database. In other words, the NSA could collect all of the metadata, but search through it only for records related to terrorism suspects.

This, in Comey’s words, ends “the Stellar Wind crisis.” For Americans having their metadata collected by the NSA, the difference between the old authorization and the new one is pretty difficult to discern.

Comey and his editors knew what he had to do to make his book a runaway bestseller: tell anti-Trump Americans that the president is every bit as bad as they think.

In the past few months, both Comey’s allies and his foes have aimed to reshape him to fit the partisan passions of the Trump era, and in some ways, he fits. The former FBI director doesn’t merely disagree with the current president, he declares that he “threatens much of what is good about this country.” Comey thinks Rudy Giuliani was an egomaniac; can’t stand Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby, or Cheney’s lawyer David Addington; doesn’t think much of Reince Priebus; thinks Alberto Gonzales was in over his head and Jeff Sessions is as well; and grew to adore Obama. (The book is full of high-profile, accomplished figures who don’t quite meet the Comey standard. A good subtitle would have been “How Almost Everyone I Met in Washington Disappointed Me.”) But he also paints affectionate portraits of George W. Bush and John Ashcroft, mentions that he donated to the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney, reveals that he thinks former attorney general Eric Holder treated retired general and CIA director David Petraeus under a too generous double standard based on class, and says that he found Loretta Lynch “tightly scripted” and uncomfortable in her high-profile job.

If Comey’s a progressive, he’s the kind who happily makes a bundle working at defense contractor Lockheed Martin and the Bridgewater Associates investment firm, and spent two years chairing the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s National Chamber Litigation Center. Now that Comey’s a hero to anti-Trump Democrats, he doesn’t bother mentioning his legal work to ensure the continuation of offshore drilling following a six-month moratorium after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

It’s clear that Comey and his editors knew what he had to do to make his book a runaway bestseller: tell anti-Trump Americans that the president is every bit as bad as they think, detailing his belief that the president uses tanning goggles, Trump’s alleged ignorance of what the word “calligrapher” means, how the president doesn’t speak to the White House stewards, and how he reminds Comey of a mafia boss. No doubt that’s all true, at least as Comey remembers. But the end result is a catty, gossipy indictment playing to the MSNBC audience, with the persistent sense that Comey or his editors decided to leave any anti-Hillary thoughts on the cutting-room floor.

Maybe someday in the future, when the political winds shift and the publishing and media worlds aren’t consumed by anti-Trump passions, we’ll get another Comey book filling in the blanks and giving more than vague hints about his views about Hillary, McCabe, and Lynch. He could call it “An Even Higher Loyalty.

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