Un­der at­tack once again

Mr. Comey faces base­less ac­cu­sa­tions from the White House.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

FACED WITH an on­go­ing spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the White House ap­pears to have set­tled on a novel method of de­fend­ing Pres­i­dent Trump in the court of pub­lic opin­ion: smear­ing James B. Comey. Three times this past week, Mr. Trump’s press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders ac­cused the for­mer FBI di­rec­tor of pos­si­ble crim­i­nal wrong­do­ing. While lev­el­ing such charges in the ab­sence of any ev­i­dence would have been in­ap­pro­pri­ate enough, Ms. San­ders went on each time to hint that the Jus­tice Depart­ment should “look at” Mr. Comey’s sup­posed trans­gres­sions — a wink and a nod that bor­ders on a threat to use law en­force­ment as a po­lit­i­cal tool against the pres­i­dent’s enemies.

Speak­ing from the White House lectern, Ms. San­ders sug­gested that Mr. Comey had vi­o­lated the law both in giv­ing false tes­ti­mony be­fore Congress and in shar­ing with the New York Times a memo doc­u­ment­ing the pres­i­dent’s re­quest that the FBI drop its in­ves­ti­ga­tion into for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn. When asked why she be­lieved Mr. Comey’s con­duct to have been il­le­gal, Ms. San­ders pre­sented a hodgepodge of le­gal ar­gu­ments with lit­tle rel­e­vance to the for­mer di­rec­tor’s ac­tions.

Ac­cord­ing to Mr. Comey’s sworn tes­ti­mony, the memo he pro­vided to the Times did not con­tain clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion. This rules out his hav­ing vi­o­lated his nondis­clo­sure agree­ment with the FBI. Yet Ms. San­ders pointed to that agree­ment along with the Pri­vacy Act, which gov­erns dis­clo­sure of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion con­tained in gov­ern­ment files, such as med­i­cal records. There’s noth­ing to sug­gest that Mr. Comey’s memo con­tained any in­for­ma­tion that would be pro­tected un­der the statute or that the memo was housed with FBI records. Ms. San­ders stated that the for­mer di­rec­tor pre­pared the memo on a gov­ern­ment com­puter. But even if that were enough to trans­form the doc­u­ment into a record cov­ered by the Pri­vacy Act — which is far from clear — there’s no pub­lic ev­i­dence to sup­port Ms. San­ders’s claim that Mr. Comey used an FBI com­puter to draft that par­tic­u­lar memo.

Ms. San­ders’s strong­est ar­gu­ment is that Mr. Comey may have trans­gressed the terms of his em­ploy­ment agree­ment with the FBI. But breach of that agree­ment would not be il­le­gal. And Mr. Comey had al­ready been fired when he passed the memo to the Times.

The le­gal rea­son­ing be­hind Ms. San­ders’s at­tacks on Mr. Comey may be ris­i­ble, but the White House’s will­ing­ness to ground­lessly ma­lign an ad­ver­sary should be taken se­ri­ously. It’s one thing for the pres­i­dent’s le­gal de­fense team to try to per­suade the pub­lic and the spe­cial coun­sel that Mr. Comey is not a cred­i­ble wit­ness. It’s quite an­other to lever­age the power of the pres­i­dency against a po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­sary and hint at a Jus­tice Depart­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion on the ba­sis of pa­per-thin claims. By now it may be naive to hope that Mr. Trump will come to re­spect the im­por­tance of in­de­pen­dent law en­force­ment. But he would be wise to keep in mind the catas­tro­phe that en­gulfed his administration when he as­saulted that in­de­pen­dence by fir­ing Mr. Comey — and aban­don this lat­est at­tack.

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