To protect the institutions

I think I’m approaching an understanding of what happened with Comey and the emails and the press conference and the letter. Basically it’s that the alternative wasn’t as much better as we (with the luxury of not living through it) may imagine. He says over and over that it was a choice between bad options. There was no good one. What would have been so bad about not saying anything when the FBI closed the investigation? The fact that Fox and Trump-fan Twitter would have been all over it like an oozing infectious skin disease.

He explains it (again) in that NPR interview.

Inskeep: Let me circle back to the Hillary Clinton case and the decisions that you made there. You mentioned it was a no-win situation. What would you say was your greatest concern when it became clear to you that that email case was going to at some point come down to a decision by you?

My greatest concern towards the end of that email investigation — it lasted about a year — towards the end was how does the Department of Justice, which includes the FBI, credibly close this investigation without charges and maximize public confidence that it was done in a just way. If it ends without charges. Because by the spring, if it continued on the same course and speed it was on, it looked to me like it was going to end without charges. And the credibility of the institution is important even in ordinary times. But all the more so when you’re investigating one of the two candidates for president of the United States. How are you able to maintain public confidence that you’re not a partisan, it’s not the Obama Justice Department trying to give a break to Hillary Clinton.

That sounds kind of abstract and conjectural if you don’t think about it much…but if you pause to think about it, and about what this whole discourse is like, you realize what he’s getting at. We would have been inundated in a crow-storm of lies…just as we were anyway. The storm of lies was going to happen no matter what…and it might have been even worse if he’d gone the other way.

Inskeep: That’s your concern. And so that I guess was behind your decision to make a public statement about the case. Just so the people understand, how would you have closed that case in the ordinary way? Suppose it was an ordinary investigation, you weren’t concerned about perceptions of the FBI or the Justice Department, what would the FBI normally have done at the end of this case?

In the ordinary case, we would most likely in writing prepare some sort of summary of what our investigation had determined and then send it over to the Justice Department, and they would in the ordinary case either say nothing, which is the most common case, or at most issue a letter to the target saying, or the subject saying it’s over, or some minimal statement about it.

Inskeep: So you decided to take another path, and decided independently of the attorney general to take another path, to speak in public about it.

That’s right. By the end of — by the beginning of July I made a decision that to protect the institutions — both the justice institutions, both the Justice Department and the FBI — the least bad alternative was to announce — the attorney general having said she would accept my recommendation rather than recuse herself — announce that recommendation and show transparency to the American people, to try to show them this was done in an independent, honest and competent way, rather than just do it in the normal fashion and just send it over to Justice.

In other words, if I understand this correctly, if they’d done it the normal way, the loonies would have screamed that the fix was in, it was a cover-up, it was corrupt, the FBI was a Democratic stooge (except they would have said Democrat stooge).

Inskeep: Here’s the thing that’s on my mind, director. You were hoping to demonstrate that the FBI was above political influence. Did you, in your course of action actually allow yourself to be politically influenced? Because you write first that you were concerned about criticism — essentially conspiracy theorizing — about the FBI, from Republicans that President Obama’s candidate for president would be cut a break. Later on you talk about this meeting between the Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Clinton. And you say you had no thought that there was any conspiracy there, but after it became a big thing on cable TV, it changed your mind. Were you actually being influenced by cable TV pundits in what you decided to do?

But is that being politically influenced, as opposed to factually or environmentally or socially or social media-ly? Is it political to take the media / social media environment into account?

I suppose it is in a way…but that way is probably part of a director’s job.

Comey’s answer:

Yeah, that’s a reasonable question, Steve. I don’t think so, and here’s why I say that: Even if cable TV punditry had never been born and there were no such thing, there would be intense public interest in a criminal investigation of one of the two candidates for president of the United States. So even if there weren’t wings in our politics, which there always have been, but even if there wasn’t that punditry, I think it would be an intense interest in knowing that this had been done in an honest, competent, independent way. And a number of things that occurred in the lead-up to that first week in July that led me to conclude, and reasonable people can disagree about this, but led me conclude that the best way to foster that confidence of an intensely interested public was to show transparency and do it separate from the attorney general.

I think I see what he’s getting at.

On the other hand there are the law types (I forget who they are – maybe Tribe is one?) point out that what he did is exactly what prosecutors are trained never to do.

It’s thorny. I guess that’s why it won’t lie down.

10 Responses to “To protect the institutions”