In late October, shortly after FBI Director James Comey’s second stunning intrusion into the campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid accused Comey of violating federal law that prohibits government employees from using their official powers to electioneer.
The basis of Reid’s claim wasn’t simply that Comey had made multiple public comments about FBI inquiries into Clinton’s email practices, but that he employed a double standard with respect to the two candidates. “In my communications with you and other top officials in the national security community, it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors and the Russian government,” Reid wrote, “yet you continue to resist calls to inform the public.”
“By contrast,” Reid added, “as soon as you came into possession of the slightest innuendo related to Secretary Clinton, you rushed to publicize it in the most negative possible light.”
It is a similar, conspicuous dual standard for the treatment of private information that has reportedly led the Central Intelligence Agency in recent days to conclude that the Russian government intervened in the election not just to sow public uncertainty and suspicion, but to help Trump defeat Clinton.
“They based that conclusion, in part, on another finding,” according to The New York Times, “that the Russians hacked the Republican National Committee’s computer systems in addition to their attacks on Democratic organizations, but did not release whatever information they gleaned from the Republican networks.”
It’s unclear what exactly Reid thinks Comey knew, yet wouldn’t publicly disclose, about Kremlin support for Trump. But one clue comes from the Washington Post, whose reporters broke the news about the CIA’s assessment. Back in mid-September, the Post reports, “[White House] officials devised a plan to seek bipartisan support from top lawmakers and set up a secret meeting with the Gang of 12—a group that includes House and Senate leaders, as well as the chairmen and ranking members of both chambers’ committees on intelligence and homeland security. Obama dispatched Monaco, FBI Director James B. Comey and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to make the pitch for a ‘show of solidarity and bipartisan unity’ against Russian interference in the election, according to a senior administration official.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected this appeal to create a united front in support of U.S. democracy, warning those in attendance he would decry “any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly [as] an act of partisan politics.”
But Reid was also present—and enthusiastic—about the administration’s idea, as were all Democrats in attendance. Whatever Comey and the other officials relayed to the Gang of 12, Comey’s presence in that role clearly tipped off Reid that Comey had deep knowledge of Russian interference efforts, and even stood prepared to inform the public about it—but only pending bipartisan approval.
One month later, in response to nakedly partisan prodding from within the FBI and without, Comey disclosed the discovery of a batch of Clinton emails (none of which turned out to be relevant, and nearly all of which turned out to be duplicates) and very plausibly handed the election to Donald Trump.
There are few if any on-the-level experts and observers who believe Comey’s conduct during this election was appropriate or well-handled. Only Comey can know what his true motives were, but assumptions range from the view that Comey lost control of the FBI due to short-sighted reputational concerns, to more explosive accusations, like Reid’s, that Comey is simply a “Republican operative.”
Whether he was working as a partisan operative or not, it’s true that Comey is a Republican. And irrespective of his intentions, it is very unlikely that he would have conducted himself the way he did if he weren’t.
There is a lesson here for Democrats, as they contemplate a future return to power. Comey wasn’t a holdover from the Bush administration. President Barack Obama nominated him to run the FBI. His decision is consistent with the Democratic Party’s larger, cowed deference to the GOP when it comes to running the country’s national security bureaucracy. This old habit can’t die soon enough.
It’s no secret that the military, the FBI, and other security services skew right wing. This partially explains why Democrats frequently select Republicans to run the Pentagon and why the FBI has never been run by a liberal. Appointing Republican bureaucrats is one way to avoid dissension during periods of Democratic rule.
But this—the capture of powerful arms of the government by partisan or ideological cohorts—is a toxic development and one no party should tolerate in perpetuity. Republicans certainly don’t. When they come to power, they don’t cede control of bureaucracies with more progressive missions to Democrats. To the contrary, they send vicious foes of progressive politics to run these agencies—the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development—and start cleaning house.
We can’t run the election over again to learn what would have happened if Comey hadn’t intruded at all. Or if he had used a consistent standard and disclosed details of the government’s inquiry into Russian disruption, and the Trump campaign’s tie to Russian actors, with just as much alacrity as he chastised Clinton. We likewise can’t say what would have happened under a different director, ideally one who had an abiding interest in not letting right-wing politics drive criminal investigations.
But keep in mind that Comey acted in defiance of Attorney General Loretta Lynch and other senior Justice Department leaders. If she or someone like her had been FBI director instead of Comey, things would have played out differently.
Democrats’ partisan reasons for despising Comey are obvious. Their strategically misguided affinity for elevating bureaucrats like Comey in the first place makes much less sense.