How the FBI's James Comey Fumbled the Clinton Email Investigation

Comey's failed attempts to appear impartial created the conditions for the firestorm that erupted Friday

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How the FBI's James Comey Fumbled the Clinton Email Investigation
FBI Director James Comey informed Congress of newfound information potentially relevant to its investigation of Clinton's use of a private email server.

FBI Director James Comey was a Republican for most of his life. He donated to John McCain's presidential campaign, and to Mitt Romney's. Before he was appointed to his current position by President Obama in 2013, he was a U.S. attorney and later deputy attorney general, appointed by George W. Bush.

That was why, before his announcement in July that he would not pursue charges against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, some Republicans were openly fantasizing that he would do just that. They were bitterly disappointed when Comey announced not only was he not going to file charges but, in his estimation, no reasonable prosecutor would (even though he characterized her actions as "extremely careless").

His July press conference was highly unusual; as Comey himself noted, the Department of Justice usually refuses to comment on ongoing cases. But he said he felt it was necessary to speak in detail, directly to the American people, because they "deserve those details in a case of intense public interest."

Comey bent over backwards in an effort to appear transparent and avoid any whiff of impropriety. Nonetheless, Republicans swiftly condemned him. He was dragged before Congress three times to reiterate his judgement that Clinton should not be prosecuted. His skewering continued unabated, to the point that he angrily lashed out at a September hearing. "You can call us wrong, but don't call us weasels," Comey told the House Judiciary Committee. "We are not weasels."

All these failed attempts to appear impartial created the conditions for the firestorm that erupted on Friday, when Comey – again, in the service of transparency – sent a letter to the the same group of Congress members he'd previously testified before, informing them that he had recently "learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the Clinton investigation."

Comey has not commented publicly on the situation since sending the letter Friday. But, as he made clear in an internal memo dispatched over the weekend, he was chiefly concerned about appearances.

"[W]e 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," Comey wrote.

What he probably should have been concerned about, though, was that he might suggest wrongdoing by Clinton in the total absence of – by his own admission – any evidence at all that she's done anything wrong.

"[G]iven that we don't know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails, I don't want to create a misleading impression," Comey wrote. It's worth reiterating that last point: Comey had (and still has) no idea what the emails found on the laptop were, or how they got there. The FBI doesn't know whether the emails are duplicates of ones that have already been turned over to them. They don't know who sent them, and they don't, in any event, suspect it was Hillary Clinton – the subject of the investigation Comey testified about and the person for whom this information will inflict the most damage.

Comey concluded by acknowledging that many voters could read something truly damning into his purposely vague letter. "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."

But he cared less about that than he did about the impression his congressional antagonists might have of him. And in doing so, Comey has earned the one thing he appears to have been trying to avoid: widespread condemnation, from all corners.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder, Comey's old boss, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed Monday he was "deeply concerned" with Comey's decision "to write a vague letter to Congress about emails potentially connected to a matter of public, and political, interest. That decision was incorrect. It violated long-standing Justice Department policies and tradition." Holder was joined by nearly 100 other former Justice Department figures in a separate open letter decrying Comey's decision. 

The Clinton campaign has been relentless in condemning Comey's move, and calling for more details – details Comey doesn't have, in part because until this weekend the FBI didn't have a warrant to examine the emails that were uncovered while they investigated the lewd messages Anthony Weiner allegedly sent to a minor.

Among Democrats, outgoing Sen. Harry Reid went the furthest, suggesting Comey acted illegally. In a letter to the FBI head, Reid said, "I am writing to inform you that my office has determined that these actions may violate the Hatch Act. ... Through your partisan actions, you may have broken the law."

Criticism was harsh on the right as well. Karl Rove said Comey was "wrong in July and was wrong on Friday." Former congressman Joe Walsh – who recently threatened an armed uprising if Trump loses – tweeted that the decision was "wrong" and "unfair" to Clinton. On Fox News, commentator and Trump booster Judge Jeanine Pirro was outraged over Comey's decision, which she said "disgraces and politicizes the FBI and is symptomatic of all that is wrong in Washington."

Pirro might be right. Comey's appointment in 2013 was a bipartisan gesture – and potentially a self-interested one, as a Republican was undoubtedly more likely to be confirmed than a Democrat – that now looks like a monument to the failure of bipartisanship.

But the wildest part is that it wasn't Comey's partisanship that lowered so many people's opinions of him; it was his fear of the appearance of partisanship that did so.

Find out everything we know so far about the FBI's investigation of Hillary Clinton's new emails. Watch here.