IN A televised interview on April 15th, James Comey tore into the president who sacked him as FBI director last year. Donald Trump, he said, in an appearance intended to publicise his forthcoming book, “lies constantly”, runs his administration like a mob boss, treats and speaks of women like they are “pieces of meat” and is, for these and other reasons, “morally unfit” to be president.
Mr Trump also has “average size” hands, “orange” skin, hair that appears on close inspection to be real, but which must “take a heck of a lot of time in the morning” to arrange, and always wears his ties too long, said Mr Comey, whose projected self-image as a dispassionate and dutiful public servant has always been undermined by a relish for political drama.
The president, characteristically, had got his defence in early. Hours before the interview was broadcast on ABC, he referred to Mr Comey on Twitter as a “slimeball” for the second time in three days. He also said Mr Comey, a former Republican, though he was appointed to run the FBI by Barack Obama, should be jailed for leaking classified information and lying to Congress about the circumstances that led to his sacking. Mr Comey, wrote the president, was “the WORST FBI Director in history, by far!”
Partisans of both stripes will find vindication in this. Mr Trump’s followers, conditioned to see Mr Comey as representative of a “deep state” plot against their insurgent leader, will hear his personal contempt for the president as establishment hauteur. They will also make much of Mr Comey’s acknowledgement that he knew of no solid evidence that the Trump team colluded with Russian, despite having presided over an FBI investigation into the question. Everyone else will sympathise with Mr Comey’s view of the president’s character; even if some may question his priorities in ramping up a personal feud that will guarantee him record-breaking book sales but further weaken what remains of his reputation for impartiality. As Mr Comey is a potential witness in a possible obstruction of justice charge against Mr Trump, arising from Robert Mueller’s enquiries into the president’s decision to sack Mr Comey for refusing to quash the Russia investigation, that is a potential setback for justice.
In a searching five-hour interview, for which ABC published the transcript in full, Mr Comey provided no important revelations. His comment on possible collusion aside, he said little about Russia or Mr Mueller’s investigation. He said his sacking could amount to evidence of obstruction but not whether he thought it had. He did, however, provide some compelling new details of an earlier political controversy—his role in managing the investigation into Hillary Clinton which helped to undermine her candidacy.
Three months before the 2016 election, the FBI’s investigation into Mrs Clinton’s unusual email arrangement as secretary of state had run into the sand. Yet instead of merely announcing that the then Democratic presidential candidate would face no charge, Mr Comey held a press conference in which he accused Mrs Clinton of “extreme carelessness”. A couple of weeks before the election, he further announced that the FBI was, in effect, reopening its investigation into her. The calamitous effect these interventions appear to have had on Mrs Clinton’s standing in the polls suggest they may have cost her the election. The fact that Mr Comey meanwhile kept quiet about a coterminous counter-espionage investigation into the Trump campaign appears to be a clear double standard. Yet in his interview, Mr Comey persisted in justifying his behaviour, more painstakingly than he had previously, by presenting himself as a sacrificial lamb for his agency’s reputation.
The fact that President Barack Obama had suggested the case against Mrs Clinton was overblown, and indications of bias in favour of Mrs Clinton from Loretta Lynch, the then attorney-general, had compelled him, he suggested, in effect to over-compensate. “My view was…that in rare cases, you should offer transparency so the American people can take a look at what you did and know that it was done in an honest, competent, independent way.” Yet if this was intended to insulate the FBI against charges of political interference, it had the opposite effect. Democrats accused Mr Comey of bias; so did Mr Trump, on the basis that his harsh words against Mrs Clinton indicated that there was more to the allegations against her than the FBI director was otherwise letting on.
In an environment of hyper-partisanship, the more conspicuous any government agency makes itself, the more politicised it will almost inevitably seem. Mr Comey made the FBI far more prominent in the 2016 election than it needed to be, and the agency has paid a price for that in the cynical assault Mr Trump has launched on it ever since. Mr Mueller, who has neither spoken publicly nor permitted any leaked information, since his appointment as special council, offers a more compelling example of how to practice law enforcement in a partisan cauldron.
Mr Comey, for all his apparent faults, including an over-sized ego, a dogged refusal to admit fault and rotten political judgement, is an impressive, upright public servant. There is no equivalence between his lapses and the moral affronts of the president he correctly diagnoses. But if only Mr Comey had behaved more as Mr Mueller does. He could have spared the world a lot of trouble.