We have known for many weeks that the FBI is investigating both the Russian government’s efforts to influence the outcome of the 2016 election and the possibility that members of Donald Trump’s campaign actively participated in those sabotage efforts.
Thanks to Reuters, though, we now have a much clearer sense of the parameters of the investigations and their possible targets. To complete the picture of who sabotaged the election and how, the FBI is conducting three simultaneous, but likely related, inquiries: first, to find the people behind the Democratic National Committee computer breaches; second, to identify the hacker or hackers who stole and leaked John Podesta’s emails; third, and most explosively, a “counterintelligence inquiry [that] includes but is not limited to examination of financial transactions by Russian individuals and companies who are believed to have links to Trump associates.”
This is all separate from the question of whether General Michael Flynn, Trump’s deposed national security adviser, lied to FBI agents in the course of their counterintelligence probe, though it is easy to imagine a scenario in which Flynn’s lies were part of larger story of espionage and political dirty tricks.
By the time they have all run their courses, these investigations might turn up little upon which U.S. law enforcement officials can act, or they might turn up the biggest political scandal in American history.
If the FBI concludes that Americans within Trump’s orbit colluded with Russian intelligence officials to disrupt the U.S. election, the evidence and prosecutions should speak for themselves. But no matter what conclusions the FBI ultimately comes to, its director, James Comey, owes the country a public accounting of what his agents found—even if nobody ends up being indicted.
Comey’s own intrusions into the election look worse and worse with each passing day of the Trump administration. At every turn, we are reminded that Comey did horrible damage to Clinton’s campaign, notwithstanding his unique visibility into the Trump-Russia nexus.
Comey announced in July that he’d recommended no charges be filed against Hillary Clinton, despite what he called her “extremely careless” handling of classified information through the use of a private email server. But eleven days before the election, he told several congressmen in a letter that there might be new evidence in the email investigation—or there might be nothing. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid wrote to Comey shortly afterward, decrying “the clear double-standard” Comey appeared to exhibit. “As soon as you came into possession of the slightest innuendo related to Secretary Clinton,” Reid wrote, “you rushed to publicize it in the most negative light possible.”
What Comey did was unforgivable, and likely history-changing. The most generous interpretation of it is that he inappropriately prioritized the FBI’s reputation—and his own—over his obligation not to discuss investigations, particularly of innocent people. In doing just that, he ended up offering a play-by-play of the Clinton-email investigation, in a way that had a clear, partisan effect. Making the public statement about closing the investigation last summer put him on the hook to testify before Congress; testifying before Congress arguably compelled him to keep Congress apprised of unexpected changes in the status of the investigation, which in turn compelled him to exculpate Clinton a second time, days before the election.
Comey made a huge and unnecessary mess.
But if we are being intellectually honest ourselves, we have to hold him to the precedents he set for himself, not to ones that would make things seem more cosmically fair. Comey should have kept quiet throughout the campaign, but by his own lights—according to his testimony before Congress last July, and contemporaneous reporting—he broke silence for three reasons that made the Clinton inquiry so unusual:
1. Because Clinton skeptics believed Attorney General Loretta Lynch—as the head of the department investigating Clinton’s emails—had compromised her independence when she met privately and unexpectedly with Bill Clinton on her plane in Arizona.
2. Because the public interest in transparency was extraordinary—Clinton was a presidential candidate, after all.
3. Because the investigation had essentially run its course, and could thus be aired without undermining its integrity. “We sometimes think differently about closed investigations,” he told Senator Angus King last month, after King implied Comey applied a double standard to Clinton and Trump–an acknowledgment, perhaps, that he won’t be able to sit on Trump-related inquiries forever.
The Russian hacking and conspiracy investigations already meet the first two of these standards, but won’t meet the third until they come to a close. When they do, we need to hear from Comey again.
The new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, one of Trump’s main campaign surrogates, is far more compromised than Loretta Lynch ever was. Sessions—who once called on Lynch to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton—is, in an act of astounding hypocrisy, refusing to recuse himself from the Trump/Russia investigation.
Likewise, the public’s interest in knowing the FBI’s findings in this case exceeds its interest in knowing the findings of the email investigation: Clinton was a candidate for the presidency, but Trump is now the president.
Comey’s actions last summer and fall raised the question of whether he had committed an honest-but-profound error of judgment or an intentional act of grotesque partisanship. What, if anything, he ultimately tells us about Trump’s ties to Russian election saboteurs will provide us an answer.