The ex­treme care­less­ness of FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Cokie and Steve Roberts Colum­nists

FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey knew ex­actly what was go­ing to hap­pen.

He was al­ready a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure in the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. His state­ment this sum­mer, that Hil­lary Clin­ton had been “ex­tremely care­less” in han­dling her gov­ern­ment email ac­counts, has been re­peated end­lessly in Don­ald Trump ads.

And now he’s done it again. He wrote a let­ter to Congress, less than two weeks be­fore the elec­tion, say­ing that a new trove of emails dis­cov­ered on the com­puter of An­thony Weiner -- the es­tranged hus­band of Clin­ton aide Huma Abe­din -- may be rel­e­vant to the Clin­ton case, which had been sus­pended months ago.

There was no hint of wrong­do­ing on Clin­ton’s part. When Comey wrote his let­ter, nei­ther he nor any of his in­ves­ti­ga­tors had eval­u­ated the Weiner emails. And yet he had to know that his let­ter -- no mat­ter how care­fully couched -- would im­me­di­ately be dis­torted and ex­ag­ger­ated by the Trump cam­paign.

And it was. The FBI di­rec­tor had pro­vided yet more fod­der for Trump’s at­tacks. But this time, it was not Hil­lary Clin­ton who was “ex­tremely care­less.” It was Comey him­self.

Comey can­not plead ig­no­rance. He knew the rules. He knew that very clear Jus­tice Depart­ment guide­lines pro­hibit do­ing pre­cisely what he did: in­ject­ing the coun­try’s most pow­er­ful law en­force­ment agency into a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign.

As The Washington Post re­ported, in early Oc­to­ber, Comey had specif­i­cally in­voked those guide­lines in de­clin­ing to join a state­ment is­sued by the Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence and the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity. The state­ment blamed Rus­sia for cy­ber at­tacks aimed at in­flu­enc­ing the Amer­i­can elec­tions, but Comey thought “it was too close” to Elec­tion Day for him to get in­volved.

Even many Repub­li­cans have joined the cho­rus con­demn­ing Comey’s mis­judg­ment. Ge­orge J. Ter­williger III, deputy at­tor­ney general un­der Ge­orge Bush 41, told The New York Times: “There’s a long­stand­ing pol­icy of not do­ing any­thing that could in­flu­ence an elec­tion. Those guide­lines ex­ist for a rea­son. Some­times that makes for hard de­ci­sions. But by­pass­ing them has con­se­quences.”

Larry Thompson, deputy at­tor­ney general un­der Bush 43, co-au­thored an op-ed piece in the Post that as­serted, “It is an­ti­thet­i­cal to the in­ter­est of jus­tice, putting a thumb on the scale of this elec­tion and dam­ag­ing our democ­racy.”

The Clin­tons have al­ways given their en­e­mies plenty of am­mu­ni­tion: her mis­guided use of a pri­vate email server as sec­re­tary of state; the ap­pear­ance of tawdry in­flu­ence-ped­dling that clings to the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion; her greedy deter­mi­na­tion to rake in mil­lions of dol­lars in paid speeches from in­sti­tu­tions that were clearly cur­ry­ing fa­vor with a pos­si­ble fu­ture pres­i­dent.

Per­haps worst of all: Bill Clin­ton’s egre­gious de­ci­sion to meet with At­tor­ney General Loretta Lynch last June while the Jus­tice Depart­ment was con­clud­ing its in­ves­ti­ga­tion of his wife’s han­dling of clas­si­fied emails. As a re­sult of his stu­pid­ity, Lynch has lit­tle lever­age over Comey.

We won’t know un­til next week whether Comey has al­tered the course of the elec­tion. His let­ter will prob­a­bly cause few vot­ers to change sides, but re­cent polling in­di­cates that some Democrats are dis­cour­aged, while Repub­li­cans are en­er­gized. And in­ten­sity and turnout mat­ter in close races -- for the Se­nate as well as the White House.

But we do know this: In try­ing to pro­tect his per­sonal rep­u­ta­tion, and the rep­u­ta­tion of his agency, James Comey has badly dam­aged both.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be con­tacted by email at steve­

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