Politics & Policy

Comey the Celebrity

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Some former agents, once defenders of the ousted FBI director, aren’t fans of his current high-profile persona.

When President Trump suddenly fired FBI director James Comey in May 2017, quite a few retired bureau officials eagerly defended Comey’s record as director, and denounced Trump’s abrupt, seemingly self-serving decision. But some of those same retired FBI agents are now turned off by the pugnacious, high-profile persona of the former director as he prepares to launch the book tour for his autobiography, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership.

In 25 years at the FBI, James Gagliano handled a wide variety of duties — criminal investigator, undercover agent, supervisory special agent, SWAT team leader, member of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, acting legal attaché at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City, and head of a bureau satellite office. He’s currently an adjunct assistant professor at St. John’s University and a CNN contributor. Back in June 2017, when Comey was preparing to testify before the Senate, Gagliano said, “Nobody’s going to question Comey’s honor and his character” and said he was “disgusted” with the way that Trump treated the former director.

Now, Gagliano says he was once a “mild fan” of Comey, but has been unhappy with the former director’s decision to venture into the public eye, writing a tell-all book and promoting it on a highly visible press tour.

“This current effort to meet the president in the public square, at his own game of slinging mud and punching and contributing smugness to the debate, it’s a bad look for him,” Gagliano says. “I think it’s going to diminish the FBI, and I think it’s going to diminish whatever’s left of Comey’s reputation.”

Former special agent Bobby Chacon, who now works in Hollywood as a technical advisor and story consultant, has had a similar change of heart. Back when President Trump didn’t even tell Comey that he was fired in person or by phone, Chacon bristled. “Nobody deserves to be treated like that,” he told the Guardian. But since then, he has come to concur that Comey is burning through the goodwill he accumulated over the course of his career in the bureau.

“I liked him when I worked at the bureau, although who the director was never really impacted my day-to-day life in the bureau too much,” Chacon says now, adding that he began to develop some concerns about Comey beginning with the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. He wondered why a grand jury wasn’t empaneled in that investigation, a move that he contends would have somewhat insulated the bureau from political controversy by leaving the decision to indict or not indict in others’ hands.

Nancy Savage, executive director of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI and a 34-year veteran of the bureau, believes that a key moment for Comey’s reputation in the bureau was his July 5, 2016, press conference, criticizing Clinton for “extremely careless” handling of classified information but concluding that “no reasonable prosecutor” would choose to press criminal charges.

“Comey was well liked and well thought of as a director overall by FBI employees, although many former agents believed he crossed the line when he publicly declined prosecution of Hilary Clinton,” Savage says. “Decisions on prosecution strictly are the responsibility of the Department of Justice. When [Attorney General Loretta] Lynch tossed the ball to the FBI and she advised she would abide by the recommendations of the FBI, he should clearly have tossed that ball back across Pennsylvania Avenue to Sally Yates and made sure that a comprehensive prosecutive report was delivered to DOJ from the FBI for their consideration.”

‘He put the agency and himself directly in the spotlight, not a good place for us ever to be,’ Chacon says. ‘It now appears that he enjoys the spotlight.’

“He put the agency and himself directly in the spotlight, not a good place for us ever to be,” Chacon says. “It now appears that he enjoys the spotlight.”

“[Comey] presented a breath of fresh air in many ways to the FBI workforce, particularly after [previous director Robert] Mueller, who was in many ways a gruff taskmaster type of leader,” says Michael German, who spent 15 years with the FBI and is currently a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program. “Comey could be more empathetic with the agents and staff, and that made them feel more appreciated. But the negative part [of Comey’s higher public profile] is that agents really like to have the bureau publicized for the good cases it works, rather than any political issues.”

Weakening the Mueller Investigation?

In separate interviews, German, Gagliano, and Savage all express similar concerns that Comey may be inadvertently giving Trump’s legal team some opportunities to discredit him as a witness, or perhaps even setting a perjury trap for himself, with his book and upcoming tour.

Gagliano says he has spoken to officials in the Department of Justice who fear that in the book and coming weeks of interviews, speeches, and remarks, Comey is likely to retell stories of his interactions with Trump and the decisions he made, over and over again. If the former director’s stories begin to vary on the details, even slightly, Trump’s defense team will use that to question the accuracy of Comey’s memory. Gagliano says he wonders why no one around Comey could convince him to wait until Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation was complete before unveiling the book and agreeing to an extensive media tour.

German says that that the upcoming tour would infuriate anyone in Mueller’s position.

“If I had any witness in a case, much less a potentially critical witness, who’s making all kinds of public statements about the case, or statements that can be used as evidence of bias against that witness, I’d be quite upset,” he says. “I’m sure Robert Muller is not very excited about this publicity tour. This is all kinds of ammunition that a defense lawyer can later use to discredit his prime witness. Everything that Comey is saying on Twitter and in the book and on this press tour will be material when he’s a witness on any obstruction of justice or anything involving the FBI–White House relationship.”

Savage runs through the long list of ongoing investigations that could require Comey as a witness — Mueller’s investigation, the Department of Justice inspector general’s investigation, the various investigations of Congress, and the new criminal investigation led by U.S. Attorney John Huber into a multitude of events including potential FISA abuses and potential criminal acts associated with the Uranium One deal. In light of all that, she says, “It is incomprehensible why former director Comey, who is almost assuredly a witness in these events and definitely had a role in these events, is engaging in a public way concerning his actions as FBI director.”

A Controversial Leak

Probably no revelation changed Comey’s reputation in the eyes of his former employees and colleagues more than his June 2017 admission before the Senate Intelligence Committee that he had given some of his personal memos and notes of his meetings with President Trump to “a close friend who is a professor at Columbia law school” — later revealed to be Daniel Richman — and asked for the material to be leaked to the news media.

Comey told the Senate panel, “I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself for a variety of reasons. I asked him to because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel.”

‘Leak through a surrogate! He didn’t even have the backbone to do it himself!’ Gagliano exclaims in disbelief.

“When Comey testified that he leaked information to a friend with the express condition that the friend give it to the press, he lost the respect of a lot of agents,” Chacon said. All FBI employees sign an agreement pledging to “not reveal, by any means, any information or material from or related to FBI files or any other information acquired by virtue of my official employment to any unauthorized recipient without prior official written authorization by the FBI.’” Comey’s most impassioned defenders would be hard-pressed to argue that leaking his personal memo didn’t violate this pledge, but can counter that the traditional consequence for an FBI employee breaking this oath is dismissal, not criminal charges.

“Leak through a surrogate! He didn’t even have the backbone to do it himself!” Gagliano exclaims in disbelief.

When pressed by Senator Roy Blunt as to why Comey didn’t contact the media himself, Comey answered, “The media was camping at the end of my driveway at that point. I was actually going out of town with my wife to hide. I worried it would be feeding seagulls at the beach if it was I who gave it to the media. I asked my friend, make sure this gets out.”

The revelation that Comey felt his leak was justified left Chacon wondering just how many other high-level FBI officials feel that the ends justify the means when it comes to leaking information.

“Now to see [former FBI deputy director Andrew] McCabe not only admit to leaking, but attempt to provide a tortured rationale for his leaks, is something many of us never thought we would see,” he says. On March 16, Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired McCabe 26 hours before his scheduled retirement. Sessions’ statement noted that the FBI’s inspector general and its Office of Professional Responsibility had both concluded “Mr. McCabe had made an unauthorized disclosure to the news media and lacked candor — including under oath — on multiple occasions.” (McCabe’s defenders noted that the internal reports supporting those conclusions were not released to the public at the time of his firing, making it impossible to evaluate the specifics of his conduct.)

Chacon thinks Comey was led astray in part by the team around him, in particular “senior leadership, which seems to have been infected with people who did not spend enough time in their careers working cases at the street level and rose up the ranks too fast.” He said the top brass forgot “about a lot of FBI traditions that were in place for a reason, such as not getting involved in politics.”

A Carefully Planned Bombshell

It’s quite likely that Comey’s appetite for the spotlight played a major factor in his rise to the top of the FBI.

In March 2004, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft lay indisposed in an intensive-care unit, recovering from gallbladder surgery. Comey, then the deputy attorney general, heard White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales and President Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., were on their way to the hospital to persuade Ashcroft to reauthorize President Bush’s post-9/11 domestic-surveillance program, Stellar Wind, which the Justice Department had just determined was illegal. Comey called then-FBI director Mueller, and the pair separately rushed to the hospital and persuaded Ashcroft not to sign the papers.

By May 2007, Comey was a respected but little-known former federal prosecutor. He had left the Department of Justice and become senior vice president and general counsel of the Lockheed Martin Corporation, when he was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Chuck Schumer opened the hearing with discussion of the firing of seven U.S. attorneys, complaints about voter-fraud prosecutions, and the slow walking of a political corruption case in Arizona. But then he asked Comey to explain “reports describing a dramatic visit by Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card to the hospital bed of John Ashcroft in March 2004.”

In surprise testimony, Comey described in detail what was “probably the most difficult night of my professional life.”

What people didn’t know at the time was that Schumer’s top committee aide, Preet Bharara — who later became United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York — had met with Comey a week earlier and carefully planned the bombshell testimony. Comey didn’t submit his written remarks to the committee ahead of time or tell anyone at the White House that he would testify about that night. “We needed to preserve the element of surprise,” Bharara told The New Yorker in 2016. It was an extraordinarily well-staged moment, designed to paint Comey as the last honest man in Washington.

“When the story of Mueller and Comey at Ashcroft’s bed came to light — here’s this lifelong registered Republican, appointed by Bush 43, here’s this guy apparently standing up and doing the right thing — it lent itself to the idea that [Comey’s] a messiah, that he’s unimpeachable,” Gagliano says. “When the story was related to me through back channels, the stunning fact that it was provided to Chuck Schumer as a political prop and to benefit Comey himself, I go, ‘Wow, is this guy truly sincere and an honest broker? Or else is this simply someone shamelessly seeking to help burnish his image who thinks, “hey, this is going to help me in the future and cast me in the most positive of lights?”’ Obviously it worked out for him. It ultimately led to President Obama picking him, a Republican, to be the next FBI director.”

Stellar Wind, the National Security Agency program that so troubled Comey, had originally been designed to collect telephone and email metadata from conversations where one party was foreign, but the NSA had begun collecting the metadata of purely domestic communications. President Bush eventually ruled that the domestic metadata could continue to be collected and reviewed, as long as the Justice Department obtained a court order for the program from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

One of the interesting questions asked years later was why Comey and Mueller played such a central role in shaping the future of a program that was run by the NSA and Department of Defense, rather than the Department of Justice. Comey later told journalist Garrett Graff that he brought along Mueller to the hospital because, “I knew that no one cared about losing a deputy attorney general, but no president could weather losing an FBI director.” The decision may very well have set the course for the rest of Comey’s career, leading to his appointment as director by Obama years later.

German points out that despite Comey’s dramatic hospital-room shutdown, Stellar Wind continued to operate in minimally changed form. “It’s not like anything stopped,” he says. “To the extent he gets a lot of credit, it’s only from the people who don’t pay attention to the details. . . . It’s telling a story that makes you look better than what actually happened.”

German is a former agent with distinctly mixed feelings about Comey. He resigned from the Bureau in 2004, frustrated over what he contended was professional retaliation for blowing the whistle on botched counterterrorism investigations. He notes that Comey isn’t the first former FBI Director to have a publicly contentious relationship with a president. Louis Freeh, who was director from 1993 to 2001, made no secret of his low opinion of President Bill Clinton; when Clinton later called appointing Freeh the worst personnel decision he had made as president, Freeh said he considered it “a badge of honor.” Freeh even turned in his White House pass to ensure that any of his visits to meet with Clinton would be recorded in the visitor logs and admissible as evidence.

Still, the FBI finds itself in strange new territory when a former director is the featured guest on Late Night with Stephen Colbert and The View, as Comey is scheduled to be as his press tour kicks off in the coming weeks. Most former FBI directors have faded into semi-obscurity in retirement; Comey is tweeting out pictures of himself looking at the Statue of Liberty or posing with the casts of Broadway shows.

Few could begrudge Comey some anger over his firing and the insulting way Trump chose to announce the decision, much less his eagerness to defend his reputation from the president’s attacks. But in an era of intense partisan division, Comey has become a full-fledged celebrity, and in some circles, a symbol of the “Resistance” to the president. He doesn’t seem to mind the role in the slightest and in fact is embracing it, which doesn’t help dispel the claim from Trump and his supporters that top officials at the Bureau had an axe to grind against him on Day One.

“[Comey] held the moral high ground,” Gagliano says. “He held it firmly, until he leaked to the New York Times through a surrogate. Then he lost a sizable piece of it. And when he joined the Twitter battle with Donald Trump, he ceded the sliver that was left. Now this self-serving, narcissistic, $850 [per ticket] in some venues, ‘Come hear me talk about the president during the ongoing special prosecutor probe’ — what are you thinking?”

“I believe a lot of it is related to the ego, and the return to form to the grandstanding that is part and parcel of who James Comey is.”

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