Former President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch insisted there was nothing improper about their little chat when their planes chanced to be in Phoenix and he strode across the tarmac to her plane.
"I did see President Clinton at the Phoenix airport as he was leaving and spoke to myself and my husband on the plane," Lynch said afterwards. "Our conversation was a great deal about grandchildren, it was primarily social about our travels and he mentioned golf he played in Phoenix."
The fact remained that the former president had met in private with the country’s top law enforcement official when the Department of Justice was actively investigating his wife in a criminal matter. His wife being Hillary Clinton, who could quite possibly be our next president.
And, say some who know FBI Director James Comey, this left him in what he felt was an untenable situation.
Comey had essentially come to the end of the investigation and he had concluded that there was insufficient cause to charge Hillary Clinton with a crime. The usual protocol called for him then to refer the findings to the attorney general and let her make the prosecutorial decision.
But the attorney general had been sitting on a plane with the target’s husband less than two weeks before. And for Lynch now to announce that Hillary Clinton had been cleared would call into question the integrity of all involved, including Comey and the FBI.
Comey decided that he had to present the results directly to the public. He did so, insisting that the evidence did not establish the intent he said was necessary to bring criminal charges. He made clear that he felt Hillary Clinton had been reckless and irresponsible and that she had shown terrible judgment.
“He wasn’t going to indict, but he was going to scold,” a former federal prosecutor said on Saturday. “Scolding in the first degree has never quite made it.”
Along with their surprise at Comey’s break with protocol, some veteran agents were outraged by the decision itself. Few of them are Hillary fans. And all of them had learned from their first days the importance of treating classified materials properly. They viewed it as the highest arrogance to ignore the strictures to which they adhere.
They noted that the word “intent” may appear in subsection a of section 793 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, but subsection f only speaks of anyone who “through gross negligence” permits classified material “to be removed from its proper place of custody.”
The more cynical agents wondered if Comey had compromised himself. Their anger was deepened by having held him in such high esteem going as far back as in his days as an assistant U.S attorney in New York, when he was the prosecutor the street agents all liked to begin their cases.
"Somebody must have pictures of him with farm animals," half-joked one now-retired agent. “That's not the Jim Comey I knew.”
But those who continued to believe in Comey were certain he had simply reached the conclusion he felt was justified by the evidence. One former FBI official said Comey is the “most honest, forthright person I have ever met in the history of time,” adding, “I would go to the end of the world with Jim Comey if he asked me to do it.”
The former official continued, “He’s got a long history doing the right thing,” noting that as deputy attorney general Comey stood up to the Bush administration, refusing to sign off on mass surveillance.
Comey’s continued admirers feel he was also again trying to do the right thing after the investigation into Anthony Weiner’s sexting with a 15-year-old girl led to a surprising discovery in the former congressman's computer.
The investing agents were legally allowed to examine the contents of the subpoenaed computer and phone under the established principle that you can only judge the evidentiary importance of what you can see. They apparently came upon e-mails that applied not to Weiner's case, but to Hillary’s.
At that moment, the investigation into Hillary was necessarily reopened. A warrant from a judge would be all that is needed to examine the emails unrelated to the Weiner case. The FBI and the Justice Department have reportedly been discussing how best to proceed.
The problem for Comey was that he had publicly declared the investigation closed three months before in circumstances required by that plane meeting. His finding had angered many “KMA” agents — those of retirement age who can just say “kiss my ass.” And, the very agents who must have been disappointed — at the very least — when all their work on the Hillary case apparently came to naught would almost certainly be put back on it when it was revived. An agent was all but sure to tip off the press that the investigation had been reopened.
Comey apparently decided that the only thing for him to do was announce that the investigation had been reopened the very way that he had earlier announced that it had been closed.
Lynch is said to have urged him not to do so, to instead keep the matter within the Department of Justice. Comey had only to look at what happened after the Department of Justice decided to take the Eric Garner case away from the New York FBI agents and prosecutors who had been working it and give it to the civil rights division in Washington. The whole thing was soon in the newspapers.
If that scenario played out in the Hillary e-mails case, Comey and the FBI would be blamed for mounting a cover-up that may have affected the outcome of a presidential election.
So Comey resolved to go ahead and make the disclosure himself. He was immediately bashed from all sides.
But he had at least regained he respect of some of the street agents, including the retired one who had known him since his first days as a junior prosecutor who announced he would “take any dog” — handle any case. Comey had now taken on the Dog of all Dogs which had taken another bizarre twist and, in this agent’s view, the FBI Director had ended up handling himself admirably.
“What he did yesterday, that's the guy I know,” the agent said on Saturday.
Perhaps what matters most to Comey is that he can feel he is living up to the legacy of the deceased lawman whose photo greets him when he arrives at work.
“My grandfather, William J. Comey, was a police officer,” Comey has said. “Pop Comey is one of my heroes. I have a picture of him on my wall in my office at the FBI, reminding me of the legacy I've inherited and that I must honor.”
The records of the Yonkers, N.Y. police show that the elder Comey rose through the ranks to lead the department. He had been just a sergeant during the Great Depression, when he organized 34 volunteer fellow cops into the "Relief Committee of the Yonkers Police Department."
“More than two thousand Yonkers individuals who were in need were supplied with food and clothing donated by police officers and local businesses,” the Yonkers Police museum website reports. “The programs success was a tribute to Sgt. Comey's hard work.”
As a detective lieutenant, the elder Comey once arrested a 22-year-old man for sexually assaulting an eight year-old girl. The victim identified the man in a line-up. The conviction was assured when the elder Comey secured a confession.
“Some questioning was necessary,” the Yonkers police noted.
But the elder Comey would know that not all cases are so readily resolved. He might have compared the Hillary e-mail case to an event from his own days. The Yonkers police museum reports:
“PO Comey was on his traffic post at South Broadway and McLean Avenue, an unattended runaway horse pulling a milk wagon came racing southbound and right toward a trolley. The letter further related that Comey threw his arms around the horse’s head as it sped by him, and directed it away from the trolley car. However in doing so the horse dragged Comey from McLean Avenue to Ludlow Street before he succeeded in bringing the animal to a stop. Fortunately neither the officer nor any bystanders were injured during the episode.”
Only the younger Comey's case have proven to be the Dog of all Dogs. No doubt the elder Comey would hope that his grandson will also by some miracle escape unscathed as he tries to live up to the family legacy.