James Comey, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), is sworn in at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee meeting last year. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)
Ahead of former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, the committee released the seven-page prepared statement Comey provided on Wednesday. While it’s clear that Comey and his allies believe the statement is proof that President Donald Trump acted inappropriately, and perhaps even illegally, the statement itself is a much bigger indictment of Comey’s own behavior over the last six months. Not only does Comey’s statement corroborate Trump’s claim that the former FBI director told him three times that the president was not being investigated by the FBI, it also reveals the Beltway game Comey was playing with the investigation.
In his statement, as my colleague Mollie Hemingway noted earlier today, Comey acknowledges the accuracy of Trump’s claim — included in the letter announcing Comey’s firing — that Comey had on three separate occasions informed Trump that he was not being investigated by the FBI. The corroboration of the claim by Comey himself is by far the most newsworthy nugget from the lengthy statement. But several other claims from Comey also do far more to indict Comey than they do to implicate Trump.
The most damning aspect of Comey’s prepared testimony is his admission that he deliberately refused to inform the public that Trump was not being personally investigated by the FBI. Comey’s justification for this refusal to publicly disclose material facts — that those facts might change — is laughable, especially in light of Comey’s 2016 two-step regarding the investigation of Hillary Clinton.
“I did not tell the President that the FBI and the Department of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most importantly because it would create a duty to correct, should that change,” Comey claims.
Recall that in 2016, Comey had no problem 1) publicly exonerating Hillary Clinton despite the fact that the authority to charge (or not charge) someone with a crime lies with federal prosecutors, not the FBI; 2) using the same press conference to excoriate Clinton’s behavior; 3) telling Congress that the investigation of Clinton was closed; and then 4) announcing days before a presidential election that the FBI had reopened the case and was once again investigating Hillary Clinton. Yet we’re supposed to believe that James Comey had grave moral concerns about disclosing facts that may be subject to change? Please.
If anything, Comey’s latest statement only highlights why Trump was justified in firing Comey in the first place. Comey, according to his own testimony, repeatedly told Trump that the president was not being investigated by the FBI. Not only that, Comey also told Congress that Trump was not being personally investigated. How on earth is it inappropriate, in light of those facts, for the president to ask for those facts to be made public by the very individual asserting them? Trump’s exasperation looks far more justifiable given the behavior to which Comey admits in his own testimony, largely because Comey’s tortured explanation for refusing to publicly explain those facts, even after disclosing them to Congress, holds so little water.
“I explained [to Trump] that we had briefed the leadership of Congress on exactly which individuals we were investigating and that we had told those Congressional leaders that we were not personally investigating President Trump,” Comey writes. “I reminded him I had previously told him that.”
Rather than elevating Comey’s moral stature, the statement he provided only makes him look smaller, and makes the game he was playing that much more obvious. According to his own testimony, Comey repeatedly told the president that the FBI was not investigating him. That’s exactly what you’d expect from a careerist looking to keep his job. It’s why Comey, in his own tortured words, pledged “honest loyalty” to Trump during a private meeting.
If the conversation with Trump had really bothered Comey all that much, he would’ve walked out and quit on the spot. Instead, he did what all ambitious bureaucrats eager to keep their jobs do: he stayed, he pledged his loyalty, and he went home and wrote up a self-serving CYA memo just in case. Here’s how Comey describes what happened:
[Trump] then said, ‘I need loyalty.’ I replied, ‘You will always get honesty from me.’ He paused and then said, ‘That’s what I want, honest loyalty.’ I paused, and then said, ‘You will get that from me.’ As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase ‘honest loyalty’ differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further.
Really, Jim? Really? That’s how you’re going to try to argue around the fact that you personally pledged your loyalty to the president, only to decide after you were fired that it made you feel icky? And your rationalization of the whole thing is that maybe you understood the phrase “honest loyalty” differently than the president?
Not until after he was fired did Comey suddenly decide to inform the public of all these interactions that he said made him so uncomfortable. Comey’s similar refusal during his tenure to inform the public that the president was not being investigated is also clear evidence of the keep-my-job-at-all-costs game he was playing (if this game looks familiar, it’s the exact same one he played when he took the fall for then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s refusal to prosecute Clinton in 2016). What better way to insure yourself against being fired than to give the impression that you are overseeing a grave investigation of potential wrongdoing by your boss?
The public impression that Trump was being criminally investigated, amplified by the president’s critics in the media, was effectively Comey’s get-out-of-jail-free card. The former FBI director likely assumed that no president would be crazy enough to fire a man whom the public believed to be investigating the president. Only a madman would fire that guy, right? Everyone in Washington knows how this game is played. They all know the tune by heart.
Unfortunately for Comey, Trump had no intention of playing that game and dancing that dance. What really happened is that Trump was wise to Comey’s con and finally had enough of it. He figured out what Comey was doing — deliberately refusing to correct a factually inaccurate impression of the FBI’s ongoing investigation as a means of protecting his job — and called his bluff.
Comey’s own words reveal in lurid detail the game he was playing. They reveal that Trump’s claims about the investigation, and his claims about Comey’s characterization of the investigation, were completely accurate. They reveal that Comey was giving one impression to the president and Congress in private and deliberately allowing an entirely different one to gain currency in public. Comey’s mistake wasn’t in thinking the Beltway two-step was the best way to keep his job. His mistake was assuming that Trump wouldn’t dare to stop dancing.