Comey’s dan­ger­ous Oc­to­ber sur­prise

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - Dana Mil­bank

— When FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey tes­ti­fied be­fore Congress in July about his rec­om­men­da­tion not to pros­e­cute Hil­lary Clin­ton, he men­tioned at least 10 times how im­por­tant it was that he be trans­par­ent.

“What I de­cided to do was of­fer trans­parency to the Amer­i­can peo­ple,” he said, “be­cause I thought it was very, very im­por­tant for their con­fi­dence in the sys­tem of jus­tice, and within that their con­fi­dence in the FBI. I was very con­cerned that if I didn’t show that trans­parency, that in that lack of trans­parency peo­ple would say, ‘ What is go­ing on here? Some­thing seems squir­relly here.’”

Now, in the fi­nal days of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Comey has shocked the na­tion by an­nounc­ing that he is re­open­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Clin­ton — and he is of­fer­ing no trans­parency at all about what is go­ing on here. And some­thing in­deed seems squir­relly.

I’ve long be­lieved in Comey’s in­tegrity. But if he doesn’t step for­ward and ex­plain his Oc­to­ber Sur­prise, he may in­ad­ver­tently wind up in­ter­fer­ing in the po­lit­i­cal process — per­haps even re­vers­ing the out­come of a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion — in a way that would have made J. Edgar Hoover gape.

We now know that Comey de­fied warn­ings by the Jus­tice Depart­ment that he was vi­o­lat­ing long­stand­ing pol­icy against in­ter­fer­ing in elec­tions. But it’s just as clear that Comey’s ac­tions — tar­ring Clin­ton with a new hint of scan­dal while pro­vid­ing no de­tails that might al­low Clin­ton to de­fend her­self — vi­o­late his own stan­dards of trans­parency that he preached a few months ago.

If he has the goods on Clin­ton, let’s hear them. If he doesn’t, as his ad­mis­sion that “we don’t know the sig­nif­i­cance of this newly dis­cov­ered col­lec­tion of emails” sug­gests, he must make clear that this is just a pro forma no­tice he sent to Congress. But what he’s do­ing is es­sen­tially propos­ing a po­lit­i­cal death sen­tence for Clin­ton with­out pro­vid­ing the charges. The weight of Comey’s thumb on the scale is greater now than it was in July, when there was still time to ab­sorb the in­for­ma­tion.

Some Demo­cratic par­ti­sans sus­pect this is a dirty trick by a man who was the No. 2 of­fi­cial in Ge­orge W. Bush’s Jus­tice Depart­ment. It could make peo­ple feel the elec­tion is be­ing rigged af­ter all — in Don­ald Trump’s fa­vor. I don’t be­lieve that. As I wrote in July, Comey’s “rep­u­ta­tion for in­tegrity is as unim­peach­able as it gets.” There’s noth­ing about Comey that sug­gests he would like to in­stall Trump in the White House; his pas­sion for the rule of law clashes with Trump’s threats to use the Jus­tice Depart­ment to go af­ter his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents.

But why would a man of in­tegrity, at a time when the na­tion is al­ready in­flamed, add gaso­line by in­sin­u­at­ing wrong­do­ing by the pres­i­den­tial front- run­ner even though he ad­mits he can’t “yet as­sess whether or not this ma­te­rial may be sig­nif­i­cant”? And give Clin­ton no chance of ex­on­er­at­ing her­self by say­ing “I can­not pre­dict” how long it will take to as­sess the ma­te­rial?

The most be­nign, and likely, ex­pla­na­tion is CYA: Comey wanted to in­oc­u­late him­self against fu­ture al­le­ga­tions from Repub­li­can law­mak­ers that he sat on rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion be­fore the elec­tion. If so, self- preser­va­tion trumped his pro­fessed love of trans­parency.

Back in July, when he made his rec­om­men­da­tion not to pros­e­cute, he read a lengthy pub­lic state­ment ex­plain­ing that “I am go­ing to in­clude more de­tail about our process than I or­di­nar­ily would, be­cause I think the Amer­i­can peo­ple de­serve those de­tails in a case of in­tense pub­lic in­ter­est.”

Then he tes­ti­fied to Congress about be­ing “a big fan of trans­parency” and a “huge fan of trans­parency” be­cause “trans­parency mat­ters tremen­dously” and “that’s what makes our democ­racy great.” Said Comey: “Trans­parency is the ab­so­lute best thing for me and for democ­racy.”

Now Comey has de­cided opac­ity is bet­ter for him, send­ing a vague let­ter to Congress while leav­ing it to anony­mous of­fi­cials to at­tempt to ex­plain his rea­son­ing to the pub­lic, via the press. Does he sup­pose that the Amer­i­can peo­ple no longer “de­serve those de­tails in a case of in­tense pub­lic in­ter­est”? In his brief words writ­ten to FBI em­ploy­ees Fri­day, Comey ac­knowl­edged there was a “sig­nif­i­cant risk of be­ing mis­un­der­stood.” But the way to avoid be­ing mis­un­der­stood is to ex­plain him­self pub­licly and fully, the way he did in July.

By fall­ing short of his own stan­dards of trans­parency, Comey is harm­ing both elec­tion in­tegrity and his well- de­served per­sonal in­tegrity. He needs to ex­plain him­self if he hopes to sal­vage ei­ther.

Dana Mil­bank is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at danamil­bank@ wash­post. com.


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