I’ll put my cards on the table: I don’t hate James Comey the way the rest of the world — right and left — appears to. I thought he came across in George Snuffleupagus’s* interview as reasonable, self-reflective, and honest.
In the last 24-48 hours, Comey has been attacked by people on both sides of the aisle. I have even seen conservatives holding up Loretta Lynch (!) as an example of integrity, and seemingly taking sides with her over Comey regarding the nature of their personal conversations and their respective handling of the Hillary Clinton matter. Why anyone would side with Lynch over Comey is a mystery to me, other than that Comey is the designated Trump punching bag of the moment.
There’s one attack that I read that intrigued me — and having investigated it, I have found it to be bogus. I figured I’d share those findings with you.
The attack comes from Lanny Davis, in a piece titled Admit it, James Comey: You’ve been lying all along. Davis complains (as most Clintonites do) that Comey messed up by sending Congress a letter just 11 days before the 2016 election, informing Congress that the Hillary Clinton email investigation had been reopened because of emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. Davis says that Comey’s stated reason for sending this letter is false:
Comey has repeatedly claimed that he was “obligated” to write his speculative letter because of a promise he had made to Congress to do so if “anything new” came up after his July 5, 2016, press conference announcing a new prosecutable case could be brought against Clinton.
However, I established beyond any doubt in my book published in February 2018, “The Unmaking of the Presidency 2016,” that Comey’s claim was — and remains — false.
In fact, Comey only promised Congress in September 2016 that if anything new came up on the emails issue that might cause the FBI to reconsider its non-prosecution decision, he would “take a look” — not that he would make a public disclosure to Congress before doing so.
Davis actually goes so far as to claim that it is a “lie” for Comey to claim that he had promised to inform Congress:
When I wrote my book, I avoided using the word “lie” about Comey falsely using the word “obligation” to Congress, given my extreme reluctance to ever use the “lie” word unless I am certain there is a knowing, willful, intentional misstatement of the truth.
Well, James Comey has had plenty of time to go back to check his testimony before Congress to see what he actually said as he begins his book tour and, among other things, tries to justify his October 28 letter.
Yet, in the already released excerpts of the TV interview with George Stephanopoulos Sunday night, Comey intends to repeat the same knowing falsehood that he was “obligated” to send his letter to Congress because he promised to do so.
There is some sleight of hand here. Davis makes it sound like the issue is whether Comey really promised to inform Congress, or whether the promise was merely to “look at” any new evidence that might come up. And if you look at the September 2016 testimony that Davis cites, the answer to that question is, as Davis claims, that Comey merely promised to “look at” the information:
Mr. SMITH: My first question is this: Would you reopen the Clinton investigation if you discovered new information that was both relevant and substantial?
Mr. COMEY: It is hard for me to answer in the abstract. We would certainly look at any new and substantial information.
So Comey is lying, right?
No. Here’s where the sleight of hand comes in. Because Davis is not telling the truth about what Comey’s stated justification was. I can find no evidence that Davis’s claim — that Comey justified having sent the letter to Congress because of a “promise” he had made to Congress to inform them — is true.
Instead, the justification Comey offered was that he had a choice: between revealing the reopening of the investigation, and concealing it. And he worried that concealing it would damage the FBI as an institution. This is what he has consistently said, in multiple places.
Let’s start with the interview with Snuffleupagus, parts of which were broadcast last night. I’m going to include a very, very long passage, so that nobody can accuse me of leaving anything out. Here is the passage from the transcript of the full unedited interview with Stephanopoulos in which Comey addresses the same issue. Comey explains the decision as a dilemma between speaking (telling Congress about the reopening of the investigation) and concealing (saying nothing). See if you can find the part where Comey says he sent the letter because he had “promised” to update Congress. Hint: it’s not there:
And then the question for me now is, “So what do we do now?” Remember the– the standard is, the norm is, “If you can avoid it, you take no action that might have an impact on an election.” And I’m sitting there, on the morning of October 27th, and I can’t see a door that’s labeled, “No action here.” I can only see two doors, and they’re both actions. One says, “Speak,” the other says, “Conceal”–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, no. You– you c– you could you f– try to find out first whether or not they were indeed relevant. Whether they– there was evidence there of a crime.
JAMES COMEY: Well, maybe. And maybe another director might have done that. My view is that would be a potentially deeply irresponsible and dangerous thing to do, to gamble– remember, the team is telling you, “We cannot evaluate this material before the election.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But we don’t know what’s in it?
JAMES COMEY: Well, we know there are hundreds of thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails there, including Blackberry emails. And so there is reason to believe that this is evidence in our case, and may change the result. And so maybe what you do is gamble and say, “I’ll be quiet about it,” but that comes back to my doors.
That’s an affirmative act of concealment, right? Because I’ve told Congress and the American people– the whole point of July 5th was transparency. “Look, American people, what we’ve done. We did it carefully, we did it well. There’s no there there.
You can take that to the bank. You can rely on the FBI. We’re done. Everybody can get on with their lives.” It’s October 27th, that’s not true anymore, in potentially a huge way. So you could speak about it, or you could not speak about it. But the not speaking about it is an action.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Senior Justice officials weren’t convinced that you actually had an obligation to tell Congress that at that time. What was their argument, what was your response?
JAMES COMEY: Their argument was that it was not consistent with our policy, and that we don’t normally comment on investigations, all of which I agree with. And that they would advise against it. Actually never spoke to me about it personally. I had my chief of staff call over to the leadership’s chief of s– staffs of th– the attorney general and the deputy and say, “The director thinks that is between speaking and concealing.
Speaking is really bad; concealing is catastrophic. If you conceal the fact that you have restarted the Hillary Clinton email investigation, not in some silly way but in a very, very important way that may lead to a different conclusion, what will happen to the institutions of justice when that comes out?
Especially, given the world we’re operating in, when Hillary Clinton’s elected president? She’ll be an illegitimate president, but these organizations will never recover from that. You hid from the American people something you knew gave the lie to what you told them in Congress repeatedly. And so the director thinks that we have to speak. And he would be happy to talk to you about it. Let him know.”
There is a lot more, as Comey and Snuffleupagus discuss the issue for a long, long, long time. If you want to keep reading, I have put the rest of this part of the interview on a page here. There is nothing in it about a “promise” to update Congress, as Davis claims. That was not the issue. The issue, in Comey’s mind, was to speak or to conceal.
This is consistent with other times when Comey has discussed the issue. Take his testimony from May 2017:
I faced a choice. And I’ve lived my entire career by the tradition that if you can possibly avoid it, you avoid any action in the run-up to an election that might have an impact. Whether it’s a dogcatcher election or president of the United States, but I sat there that morning and I could not see a door labeled no action here.
I could see two doors and they were both actions. One was labeled speak, the other was labeled conceal. Because here’s how I thought about it, I’m not trying to talk you into this, but I want you to know my thinking. Having repeatedly told this Congress, we are done and there’s nothing there, there’s no case there, there’s no case there, to restart in a hugely significant way, potentially finding the emails that would reflect on her intent from the beginning and not speak about it would require an active concealment, in my view.
And so I stared at speak and conceal. Speak would be really bad. There’s an election in 11 days, Lordy, that would be really bad. Concealing in my view would be catastrophic, not just to the FBI, but well beyond. And honestly, as between really bad and catastrophic, I said to my team we got to walk into the world of really bad. I’ve got to tell Congress that we’re restarting this, not in some frivolous way, in a hugely significant way.
And the team also told me, we cannot finish this work before the election. And then they worked night after night after night, and they found thousands of new emails, they found classified information on Anthony Weiner. Somehow, her emails are being forwarded to Anthony Weiner, including classified information, by her assistant, Huma Abedin. And so they found thousands of new emails and then called me the Saturday night before the election and said thanks to the wizardry of our technology, we’ve only had to personally read 6,000. We think we can finish tomorrow morning, Sunday.
And so I met with them and they said we found a lot of new stuff. We did not find anything that changes our view of her intent. So we’re in the same place we were in July. It hasn’t changed our view and I asked them lots of questions and I said okay, if that’s where you are, then I also have to tell Congress that we’re done. Look, this is terrible. It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election. But honestly, it wouldn’t change the decision.
Everybody who disagrees with me has to come back to October 28 with me and stare at this and tell me what you would do. Would you speak or would you conceal? And I could be wrong, but we honestly made a decision between those two choices that even in hindsight — and this has been one of the world’s most painful experiences — I would make the same decision.
I would not conceal that, on October 28, from the Congress.
Finally, Comey wrote a letter to his troops, explaining the decision. Here is the relevant paragraph, explaining why he wrote the letter to Congress:
Of course, we don’t ordinarily tell Congress about ongoing investigations, but here I feel an obligation to do so given that I testified repeatedly in recent months that our investigation was completed. I also think it would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record. At the same time, however, given that we don’t know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails, I don’t want to create a misleading impression. In trying to strike that balance, in a brief letter and in the middle of an election season, there is significant risk of being misunderstood, but I wanted you to hear directly from me about it.
Again, there is nothing there about a promise to Congress. Comey is just saying that, having testified about it to Congress, he believed it would be misleading if the investigation were reopened and he said nothing.
I won’t call Lanny Davis a liar. But from all available evidence, the claim he makes about Comey’s proffered justification is false.
You’ll have to find other reasons to criticize Comey. This dog won’t hunt.
*That’s what I’ve always called him.