James Comey came to the FBI five years ago with a reputation almost as towering as his 6-foot-8 frame. He had famously stood up to the White House over an illegal surveillance operation after 9/11, and he promised to lead the FBI into a new era after he was confirmed as director by a resounding 93-1 vote in the Senate.
On his desk in the director’s suite, he kept an old wiretapping order signed by J. Edgar Hoover, his notorious predecessor, to spy on Martin Luther King Jr. — a symbol of the dark days at the FBI that Comey wanted to leave behind.
On Thursday, Comey faced a dark day of his own. An 18-month investigation by Inspector General Michael Horowitz delivered a devastating blow not only to Comey’s own legacy, but to the reputation of the FBI and the Justice Department as a whole in the mishandling of critical events in the 2016 presidential campaign centering on the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
The missteps were the result of bad judgment, not political bias, the inspector general found. Comey told investigators that he took unorthodox steps on his own, such as announcing the findings of the Clinton investigation in a remarkable press conference in July of 2016, because of what he saw as “the need to preserve the credibility and integrity of the [Justice] Department and the FBI.” But Horowitz found that the public impact of his actions was just the opposite.
“The decisions negatively impacted the perception of the FBI and the Department as fair administrators of justice,” the report concluded.
The blistering conclusions in the 500-page report are as notable for the source as for the substance. They came from a watchdog office known for many years for its dogged independence in probing abuses at the FBI and the Justice Department. President Donald Trump had lobbed some of the same accusations at Comey over the Clinton email investigation when he fired him as FBI director 13 months ago. But the president’s attacks were widely seen as a pretext that generated as much sympathy as scorn for Comey. The findings from the Justice Department’s own inspector general will not be dismissed so quickly, and they come at a time when public confidence in the FBI appears to be flagging, hurt in part by Trump’s relentless and often misleading attacks on the agency.
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From his early days as a career prosecutor in the Justice Department, Comey built his reputation around his integrity and his judgment. His hospital-room standoff in 2004 with top aides to President George W. Bush over an NSA surveillance program became the stuff of legend, chiseling his reputation as a man who does what he thinks is right never mind the consequences. But a virtue in one situation can be a vice in another. Those same qualities — independence, high-mindedness, toughness — led him down the wrong path in the Clinton investigation, Horowitz’ investigation suggests.
The report uses words like words like “insubordinate” to describe Comey’s conduct, saying he decided to “conceal” his intentions from top officials at the Justice Department before his July press conference. And his decision-making process at key moments was “inconsistent,” “subjective” and “ad hoc” and even “violated long-standing [Justice] Department practice,” the report said. Indeed, the dominant theme running through the 500 pages is that, in the view of the inspector general’s office, Comey allowed his flawed personal judgements to override traditional legal norms in the Clinton investigation — with far-reaching consequences.
Comey stood by his decisions Thursday. “Even in hindsight I think we chose the course most consistent with institutional values,” he wrote in the New York Times after the report came out. He said he did what he had to do to avoid losing public faith in the investigation. “As painful as the whole experience has been, I still believe that. And nothing in the inspector general’s report makes me think we did the wrong thing.”
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Comey did weeks of high-profile media interviews this spring for the publication of his book, “A Higher Loyalty,” as he took Trump to task for his ethics and truthfulness. His publisher moved up the publication of the book to April, a move that put Comey’s story out well ahead of the looming inspector general’s report. Comey tried mightily, with mixed reviews, to justify his decisions in the Clinton case as the best way out of a bad set of choices representing what he called a “500-year flood” of political events. But Horowitz’ findings provide an alternate ending to the story.
The bruising conclusions provide grist both to Trump, who has been engaged in a running feud with Comey over the Russia investigation, and to Democrats, who accuse Comey of effectively throwing the election to Trump. Many Clinton supporters remain incensed by Comey’s decision eleven days before the election to notify Congress that the FBI was examining a new batch of Clinton emails found on the computer of Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former congressman who was married to Clinton aide Huma Abedin. That decision became even more jarring, Clinton supporters complain, in light of his decision to keep secret the FBI’s investigation during the fall campaign into possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.
As critical of the report was of Comey’s decisions, some of his former agents came in for even sharper criticism. The report found that five FBI employees involved in the Clinton email investigation sent messages on bureau devices or systems in support of Clinton and against Trump during the campaign. (The names of two employees who were having an affair, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, came out publicly months ago; the other three were not named in the report).
While the investigation found there was no evidence that the messages and the personal opinions ultimately affected any decisions made in the Clinton case, it said that that they did “cast a cloud over the entire FBI investigation. … The damage caused by these employees’ actions extends far beyond the scope of the [Clinton email] investigation and goes to the heart of the FBI’s reputation for neutral fact-finding and political independence.”
For an FBI director who prided himself not just on his own reputation but on maintaining that of the agency, that criticism may cut just as deep.