Blame Comey’s moral vanity for this newest mess

Most people didn’t think it was possible, but FBI director James Comey — as is now known by everyone who hasn’t been locked down in a Zen monastery for the past few days — has just increased the craziness of this already loony and deeply depressing presidential election campaign, writes Suzanne Garment    

Blame Comey’s moral vanity for this newest mess

He accomplished this feat with his letter to Congress announcing that FBI personnel are going to review emails that they found while investigating criminal allegations against former Representative Anthony Weiner, estranged husband of key Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Comey said the emails may be relevant to Clinton’s own email scandal, though the FBI does not yet know their contents.

Comey acted against the practice that the Justice Department, of which the FBI is a part, should not interfere with the democratic process by releasing information that might tip the outcome of the vote within 60 days of the election. However, anyone who finds Comey’s behaviour puzzling or self-contradictory hasn’t followed the career of this very careful bureaucrat.

What Comey’s behaviour makes clear — and has made clear to observers of differing political stripes — is that a public official can do great harm through the expression of a kind of self-important moral vanity.

Comey has proved to be the quintessential bureaucrat, always focused on protecting his own back. That seems to be Comey’s prime motivation and appears to be fuelling his intense drive to appear completely “transparent”.

In July, he held a press conference to make an extremely careful announcement that the FBI’s “recommendation” in the Clinton email investigation was not to prosecute her even though, in his view, her behaviour had been “extremely careless”. Or, as one post put it more succinctly, “I’m going to drop bombs on Hillary’s many email-scheme lies, then announce no prosecution”.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has been apoplectic ever since. However, other Republicans have also expressed outrage at what they view as Comey’s favouritism toward Clinton.

Now, Comey has tried to restore his public reputation for balance. Did you think he was too easy on Clinton the last time?

Well, he’ll show you: He’ll act so that no one can have the slightest justification for claiming that he has been anything but scrupulously, meticulously evenhanded in his official behaviour. Nothing but clean, folks.

The FBI is an investigative agency whose findings enable Justice Department prosecutors to make prosecutorial decisions. Even in the Clinton email scandal, from which attorney general Loretta Lynch had to recuse herself because of her tarmac meeting with former president Bill Clinton, there were plenty of career officials at the Justice Department who were capable of making the decision about whether to prosecute.

The country did not need the matter to be effectively decided in a public press conference by Comey. Still less did it need a second public performance from him, which performs no function other than to try to extricate him from the trouble he reaped as a result of his first public performance.

Maybe now that the FBI director has gored the oxen of both political parties in his insistence that everyone know how virtuously careful and non-partisan he is, we can exercise our capacity for self-correction once again. Why not return to a more traditional allocation of responsibilities in which the prosecutors make the decisions about whether to prosecute, after the investigators have investigated and reported the results to them?

Then these prosecutors, as prosecutors have traditionally done, either put up, by getting an indictment, or shut up, without press conferences and public self- justification.

Suzanne Garment, a lawyer, is the author of Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics

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