Comey’s Audacious Gambit

Like Chief Justice John Roberts, who foisted a slippery interpretation of Congress’ intent onto Obamacare to save it for political reasons, FBI Director James Comey is stuck with the unenviable task of trying to preserve the legitimacy of the institution he heads against a litany of heated factions with mutually irreconcilable demands. His agency, institutionally and politically conservative, was tasked not only with impartially investigating the possibility of wrongdoing on the part of the Democratic presidential nominee — but with doing so while facing fire from a Republican Party and nominee that would call any outcome ‘rigged’ that did not result in her indictment and prosecution.

Cognizant of this political death-trap, Comey attempted to split the difference in July by not indicting Clinton, but also taking the unprecedented step of staging a remarkable piece of political theater to scold her. He was livid that he’d been placed in the position he was in — and it showed. There should be little doubt that Republicans do not want impartial justice: they want the FBI to rid them of a political opponent they have unsuccessfully tried to nail down for the last 25 years. And they were not going to accept any explanation to the contrary. But perhaps, Comey thought, a harsh reprimand would mollify them.


It is this backdrop against which Comey’s also-unprecedented letter to Congress was sent. Donald Trump and the Republican Party have suddenly decided that the justice system might not be ‘rigged’ after all, which must please Comey — but the contents of the letter are highly ambiguous — outrageously so, given the gravity of the situation. Comey wrote in his internal memo to the FBI that he wanted to clear up the potential for speculative misinterpretation — which is either mendacious or malicious. It is simply not possible that Comey could be ignorant of how the press and Republicans would interpret this — and it is jarring that he claims simultaneously that he has no clue whether the new material is significant but yet that he was somehow duty-bound to reveal its existence a week and a half out from the election. His astonishingly irresponsible ambiguity resulted in hours of false interpretations — that the original case was being re-opened — wild speculation — that there must be a bombshell lurking — and inflamed partisan innuendo. Perhaps some of the angry agents working under him have been pacified: livid as he is at being placed in this situation, it is hardly inconceivable that Comey has simply decided to ‘go rogue’ and protect his own reputation first and foremost.

Here is what we do not know: when were these e-mails uncovered? Who sent them? Are they from the server, to the server, both, or simply about the server? Are they duplicates of previously-reviewed e-mails, or are they brand-new? Does the FBI even know enough at this point to answer these questions? Comey claims that he does not know whether there is anything significant in play — so it seems as though nobody actually knows what is actually at stake — the FBI included. But how can we be sure? These are basic questions to which we have not a hint of an answer. And by his own admission, the decision to send the letter to Congress in the first place was highly unorthodox. So why make this information public without any substantiating details? Why kick open the door to speculation and innuendo — and then deny that is his intent?

Well, we can answer that question: if this information had come to light only after the election, or — worse — if it had leaked, then Comey’s reputation — and that of the FBI — among conservatives could have been permanently scarred. He is in the position of having to preserve the FBI’s reputation as an independent actor in a hyper-polarized political environment over a case in which the presidency is possibly at stake. In other words: he faced a no-win situation. Faced with bad options all around, he chose a bad option.

Will this even have any effect on the race at this point? It is difficult to imagine that many opinions can be fundamentally changed after a year and a half of this saga unfolding, especially given the extremely questionable timing of the revelations and the emerging backlash to it. But it is also easy to imagine it making enough of a difference at the margins to flip states whose polls show razor-thin margins, like Ohio and Arizona. Of course, much depends on how the next ten days play out — and anyone who says they know what will happen isn’t telling the truth.