The costs of Comey’s ap­pease­ment

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - EJ Dionne Colum­nist E.J. Dionne’s email ad­dress is ej­dionne@washpost.com. Twit­ter: @EJ­Dionne.

The ev­i­dence sug­gests that FBI Direc­tor James Comey is a de­cent man. The ev­i­dence also sug­gests that he has been in­tim­i­dated by pres­sure from Repub­li­cans in Congress whose in­ter­est is not in jus­tice but in de­stroy­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton.

On Fri­day, a whip­sawed Comey gave in. Break­ing with FBI prece­dent and Jus­tice Depart­ment prac­tice, he weighed in on one side of a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

I don’t be­lieve this was his in­ten­tion. But his vaguely worded let­ter to Congress an­nounc­ing that the FBI was ex­am­in­ing emails on a com­puter used by Clin­ton aide Huma Abe­din ac­com­plished the cen­tral goals of the right-wing crit­ics Comey has been try­ing to get off his back.

Es­pe­cially dis­turb­ing is that some of those crit­ics are in­side the FBI. As The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Sari Horwitz re­ported on Satur­day, “a largely con­ser­va­tive in­ves­tiga­tive corps” in the bu­reau was “com­plain­ing pri­vately that Comey should have tried harder to make a case” against Clin­ton.

For a ma­jor law-en­force­ment in­sti­tu­tion to be so politi­cized and bi­ased against one party would be a gen­uine scan­dal. If Comey acted in part out of fear that his agents would leak against him, it would re­flect pro­found dys­func­tion within the FBI.

One mea­sure of the dam­age Comey has done to his rep­u­ta­tion is the praise Don­ald Trump show­ered upon him af­ter months of trash­ing the direc­tor for not rec­om­mend­ing Clin­ton’s in­dict­ment. Win­ning fa­vor from a politi­cian who has de­scribed how he would use the govern­ment’s in­stru­ments to pun­ish his en­e­mies is not some­thing a pro­fes­sional like Comey will ever be proud of.

Far from cow­er­ing, Clin­ton and her cam­paign went on the of­fen­sive, de­mand­ing more clar­ity from the FBI direc­tor. In light of re­ports that no one in the bu­reau has even viewed the mes­sages, Tim Kaine, Clin­ton’s vice pres­i­den­tial run­ning mate, said on ABC’s “This Week” Sun­day: “If he hasn’t seen the emails, they need to make that plain.” Clin­ton called Comey’s in­ter­ven­tion “un­prece­dented and deeply trou­bling.” In­deed.

Comey’s murky let­ter opened the way for Trump to level wild charges against Clin­ton and for con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans to en­gage in their own ini­tia­tives to twist the truth.

Rep. Ja­son Chaf­fetz, R-Utah, chair of the Over­sight Com­mit­tee, quickly tweeted news of Comey’s let­ter Fri­day and stated: “Case re­opened.”

This is not what Comey said (and tech­ni­cally the Clin­ton case was never closed). But many in the me­dia bought Chaf­fetz’s hype, es­pe­cially in early ac­counts. That’s what hap­pens when an FBI direc­tor hands an ex­plo­sive but mud­dled let­ter to a Repub­li­can-led Congress.

In fact, Chaf­fetz had al­ready made clear that if Clin­ton wins, the GOP’s top pri­or­ity will be to keep the Clin­ton in­ves­tiga­tive ma­chine rolling.

Comey may have thought he had ar­rived at the Solomonic mid­dle ground that would make ev­ery­one happy. But as Matthew Miller, a for­mer Jus­tice Depart­ment Of­fi­cial wrote in The Wash­ing­ton Post, when “the govern­ment de­cides it will not sub­mit its as­ser­tions to ... rig­or­ous scru­tiny by bring­ing charges, it has the re­spon­si­bil­ity to not be­smirch some­one’s rep­u­ta­tion by lob­bing ac­cu­sa­tions pub­licly in­stead.”

Comey had en­tered the po­lit­i­cal fray, and there was no turn­ing back -- es­pe­cially since his Repub­li­can tor­men­tors would not be sat­is­fied un­til Clin­ton was brought down. As The Post ed­i­to­ri­al­ized, Comey had al­ready gone “too far” in “pro­vid­ing raw FBI ma­te­rial to Congress.” He al­lowed him­self to be sucked into a dan­ger­ous and dys­func­tional re­la­tion­ship with one po­lit­i­cal party that set him on the haz­ardous course to Fri­day’s let­ter.

His­tory shows that ap­peas­ing bul­lies never works. Maybe Comey has learned this les­son and will try to make amends in com­ing days.

As for the vot­ers, my hope is that they re­ject this per­ver­sion of jus­tice all the way down the bal­lot.

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