What if FBI Director James Comey had said nothing?
What if he had stuck with protocol and only notified the Department of Justice that agents had come upon emails in Anthony Weiner’s computer?
What if he had told only those same folks at Justice that this had compelled him to reopen the investigation of Hillary Clinton that he had officially and publicly recommended be closed back in July?
Right about now, word of the reopened investigation would be leaking to the press.
On top of that would have come word that FBI agents had chanced upon the emails shortly after Weiner’s electronic devices were subpoenaed in September and only alerted Comey to the full import of the discovery this past Thursday.
And everybody would be clamoring that the agents and Comey and the Department of Justice had conspired to hide it from the American people until after the election.
“He was caught between a rock and many, many hard places,” a former FBI official says. “I don’t think he had any option.”
With talk of a cover-up, who would then believe any possible innocent explanation Huma Abedin might be able to offer as to how some of her State Department emails ended up on her estranged and very strange husband’s laptop after she had sworn under oath that she had turned over all such documents in whatever form?
What we do know is that whatever the truth might be, it will be much easier to accept than if word of the reopened investigation had leaked out as if from a failed cover-up.
We should be thanking Comey, not cursing him.
Anybody who doubts that word of the investigation would have leaked should consider the intense anti-Clinton sentiment among some FBI agents. Those who are also pro-Trump include James Kallstrom, the widely respected former assistant director in charge of the New York office, who came out fervently in favor of The Donald earlier this month. He began by calling Clinton “a pathological liar” and saying the Clinton Foundation could be investigated as a racketeering enterprise. He then said:
“I’m endorsing Donald Trump. I’ve known him 40 years. I’ve never endorsed a candidate. He’s a good human being. He’s a generous person. He’s got a big heart. He’s done hundreds and hundreds of things for people without fanfare. He’s a good guy. He’s a patriot to this country. And regardless of what he says, his acts show he is not that person. He’s been in this Hollywood crowd that talks like that. A lot of people talk like that. But he doesn’t do these things. He’s a good guy. I’ve known his family from the time they were kids. Look at his children. Could you find a better family than he brought up in this country? He’s a smart guy, a businessman. He’ll turn this country around. Please, you women out there, if you want change, vote for Donald Trump. Put this other stuff aside…”
His face flushed as he declared, “Our Constitution is at stake!”
Kallstrom seemed to be a man so tunnel-visioned by friendship and so disgusted with Clinton that he was willing to dismiss bragging about criminal sexual assault as just some Tinseltown talk. Never mind all the women who have come forward saying Trump had committed what the law defines as a crime.
A good number of FBI agents, male as well as female, were repulsed by Trump’s bragging about grabbing women by their genitals; in truth few people talk like that anywhere. But Trump’s talk in no way made agents any more enamored with Clinton, whom they overwhelmingly believe to be guilty of a federal crime. And Kallstrom’s stellar status among agents seems undiminished.
“He’s beloved,” a former FBI official said on Sunday.
When Kallstrom took over the New York office back in 1995, Trump had in fact shown that he was capable of acts of generosity, at least when it came to the FBI. Agents who needed access to a building for a case or the use of an apartment to conduct surveillance needed only to ask. And Trump never charged them, whereas some other real estate guys would see an opportunity to gouge.
“They would charge double,” a retired agent recalled this weekend.
Trump struck up a friendship with Kallstrom, who was known among agents as the tech wizard who developed and championed wiretap techniques that made some of the bureau’s biggest cases. Kallstrom was also a rough and tumble Marine combat veteran who spoke like a street agent.
“Cowardly scum,” he said of terrorists arrested in a bombing case.
When Kallstrom retired in 1997, the then U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Mary Jo White, offered a view shared by seemingly everybody in federal law enforcement.
“[Kallstrom] exudes humanity,” she said. “Everybody sees him as not only the supreme law enforcement being but also their brother, their father, and their friend.”
White resigned her own position in 2002. Her successor was James Comey, who had been a fledgling prosecutor in the office before moving to Virginia. He had there joined Richmond’s then mayor, Tim Kaine, in pioneering Project Exile, which brought federal charges against felons caught with guns.
Comey also led the hunt for fugitive billionaire Marc Rich, who had, among other things, been trading oil with the Iranians during the hostage crisis. Comey tracked Rich from Switzerland to Moscow. But the hunt was for naught when President Bill Clinton pardoned Rich hours before leaving office.
“It takes your breath away,” Comey said.
The new president, George W. Bush, took notice of Comey after then FBI director Louis Freeh petitioned to have the prosecutor put in charge of the stalled Khobar Towers bombing case. Comey secured indictments three months later. Bush was impressed enough to name Comey the new U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Among the cases Comey inherited from his predecessor was an investigation into whether Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich had been in reward for political contributions and other payments funneled through the billionaire’s wife, Denise Rich. Comey found there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, no matter what his personal feelings might have been about the pardon.
Comey did prosecute Martha Stewart for alleged stock fraud. Comey said, “This criminal case is about lying—lying to the FBI, lying to the SEC, lying to investors. Martha Stewart is being prosecuted not for who she is but because of what she did.”
Stewart was acquitted of the major charges but found guilty of lying to the FBI and sentenced to the minimum; five months in prison, five months of house arrest.
Comey went on to become deputy attorney general and then FBI director. He was himself held in highest regard among agents. They could only have felt sympathy for the position he was placed in when Attorney General Loretta Lynch chatted with former President Bill Clinton aboard her plane on the tarmac at Phoenix Airport back in June.
“I know Loretta Lynch and think she’s accomplished and a hard charger, but perception becomes reality,” a former FBI official said on Sunday. “When this gets in the Twittersphere, it just goes around and around, and it becomes reality.”
For the agents, the surprise was not that Comey chose to present publicly his recommendation regarding the Hillary Clinton case. The shock was that he found there was insufficient evidence to prosecute her.
“Guys are saying, “What happened to our FBI?’” an agent reported.
The FBI was still the FBI, and agents on the Anthony Weiner case did not fail to notice emails that potentially related to the Clinton case after they subpoened his electronic devices in late September.
The agents on the Weiner case would then have had to contact the agents who had been on the Clinton case who would have been off doing other things after it was closed.
Once everybody was in touch with each other, their collective effort would have been slowed because the Weiner search warrant did not cover any emails unrelated to that case. And the agents could not seek an additional warrant for these other emails until they were able to gain some sense of their nature. And that effort was hampered by the very lack of a warrant.
By some reports, the agents gave Comey some warning that they might have new material. But a month passed before they were ready to tell him that the emails justified reopening the investigation just before the election.
That was on Thursday. Comey notified the appropriate Department of Justice officals, who reportedly instructed him to let them handle it, apparently with the intention of not informing the public until after the election, if at all.
Comey went ahead and publicly announced his decision just as he had in July. He informed the House Committee on Oversight and Government by letter that the investigation he had declared closed had necessarily been reopened. He added no further facts and had none, as the Justice Department only secured a warrant Sunday evening.
But Comey’s letter pre-empted leaks and the talk of a conspiracy that would have surely ensued. He, in so doing, became the target of all kinds of verbal abuse by Clinton surrogates, who were slow to allow that their prevaricating candidate and her plane-hopping husband were at all to blame.
Dozens of former federal prosecutors joined in signing a letter Sunday that blasted Comey for violating Department of Justice protocols that are intended to prevent interference with the electoral process. The signatories included former attorney general Eric Holder.
Holder was deputy attorney general at the end of the Clinton administration and has been widely reported to be the primary fixer behind the pardon of the same fugitive billionaire whom Comey had been chasing. Holder’s role in the Marc Rich scandal was investigated by the same committee to which Comey sent his letter that the dozens of prosecutors condemned on Sunday. The resulting 2002 report on the pardon depicts Holder as the worst kind of Washington insider and hardly a fitting clarion of piety.
“Holder recommended that [Rich] hire a Washington lawyer ‘who knows the process, he comes to me, and we work it out,’” the House Committee on Oversight and Government reported.
Yet, when Holder was nominated for attorney general in 2008, Comey wrote in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that his “error should not disqualify him.”
“I think Mr. Holder’s [mistake] may actually make him a better steward of the Department of Justice because he has learned a hard lesson about protecting the integrity of that great institution from political fixers,” Comey said. “I have come to believe that Mr. Holder’s role…was a huge misjudgment, one for which he has, appropriately, paid dearly in reputation.”
Comey added, “Yet I hope very much he is confirmed.”
Eight years later, Holder becomes part of another lesson for Comey that decency often has to be its own reward.
Even if the words had been sticks and stones, Comey would have been tough enough to survive a few broken bones.
“He’s the director of the FBI,” a former agent noted. “What are they going to do, fire him?”