Never before has a former FBI director boasted about taking advantage of an administration’s disorganization for his own ends.
But never before has a former FBI director been as self-satisfied as James Brien Comey Jr.
In an interview at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Comey delighted his Upper East Side audience with his tale of how he exploited the Trump White House’s disarray in its initial days to send two FBI agents to talk to then-national security adviser Michael Flynn without honoring the usual processes (e.g., working through the White House counsel’s office).
Comey said that in a different administration, it was “something I probably wouldn’t have done or maybe gotten away with.” He apparently didn’t consider how that might sound to anyone not already inclined to enjoy the wit and wisdom of James Comey, or old enough to remember when an FBI director pushing to “get away” with things wasn’t so amusing.
A lot of people have been diminished by the Trump years, Comey among them. He’s a bigger political figure than ever before, but has revealed himself to be exactly what critics always said — a politically savvy operator who matches his bureaucratic skills with an impregnable sense of self-righteousness.
The conundrum of James Comey was that he deserved to be fired, but firing him — certainly the way Trump did it — was the worst mistake of Trump’s presidency. It would have been better to have Comey inside the tent leaking and maneuvering for his own advantage, than to have him outside leaking and maneuvering for his own advantage.
Comey is a smart and capable man. In many ways, he was a good FBI director. His fault was always being too clever by half and keeping too keen an eye out for his own image and political interest.
He bent over backward to get to the conclusion that President Barack Obama and his Justice Department wanted in the Clinton email investigation, then decided to speak out about the matter lest people think his decision was politically tainted.
Comey thus ignored the law in the Clinton case, and ignored Justice Department rules in talking about it.
Comey may have been a law unto himself, but there shouldn’t be any doubt that he knows what he’s doing.
After Trump fired him, Comey gave one of his memos to a friend so he could share its contents with The New York Times in the hopes that it would catalyze the appointment of a special counsel. Sure enough, we got a special counsel.
A special-counsel probe is an act of punishment against any administration subjected to it. It will cause distraction, legal fees and heartache — in the best case. A practiced Washington player, Comey knew all of this.
That he’s so deft makes his slipperiness about inconvenient matters related to the investigation all the more telling.
Consider a little item from Comey’s recent congressional questioning. Then-chief of staff Reince Priebus asked Comey if a conversation they were about to have was private. Comey said it was, despite the fact that he would write a memo about their talk, and it would — of course — make it into the press.
Asked by Rep. Trey Gowdy about how he used the word “private,” Comey answered that he meant he and Priebus were the only two people in the room. As if that was what Priebus wanted to know.
Comey is not so careful about parsing terms when he blasts Trump and calls for his defeat. He is acting under extreme provocation, but seems unaware that his pronouncements as a private citizen cast a pall over his public service when he wielded some of the most sensitive powers of government.
None of Trump’s attacks on Comey has been as damning as the supposedly by-the-book FBI director admitting he did an end run around process in the Flynn interview, and soaking up laughter and applause for it.
Rich Lowry can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.