James Comey acted ethically, morally, legally and rightly when he disclosed to The New York Times in 2017 that President Trump had told him to “let…go” of the criminal investigation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
After all, by the time the former FBI director released the information, Trump already had taken two of multiple acts of obstruction. Trump had not only interfered with Comey to get Flynn off the hook, but the president also had fired Comey after he didn’t clear Flynn.
Despite Comey’s strong justification for releasing the information about presidential wrong-doing, he has received tepid support from the mainstream press in the face of the harsh criticism in Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s Aug. 29 report.
The news organizations that should be supporting Comey’s decision to reveal Trump’s obstruction have instead cowered on the sidelines. The New York Times and Washington Post have not run staff editorials, as of Labor Day, even though they plastered Comey’s disclosures across their pages when they were made in the spring of 2017. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch also has been silent.
This is either lack of courage, intellectual confusion or the failure to see Comey’s disclosure in the context of history.
America’s press and democracy depend on government officials violating the rules and sometimes the laws to reveal a president’s or other government official’s wrongdoing.
Think about the last half century – Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, NSA wiretapping, NSA data collection, WikiLeaks. Think John Dean, Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden and Mark Felt aka Deep Throat, himself an FBI head and the most famous confidential source in history.
Would the Washington Post of the 1970s have sat silently by if the Justice Department had criticized Felt for helping the Post uncover Richard Nixon’s Watergate illegalities?
Just about every reporter who has worked in Washington has tried to persuade a government official to violate the government rules by leaking important information about government wrong-doing. The resulting stories often end abuses and make government work better and more justly.
When Ronald Reagan took over the presidency almost four decades ago, we at the Post-Dispatch were able to persuade Justice Department and EPA officials to leak information showing the Reagan political appointees had intervened to end a criminal prosecution against top McDonnell Douglas executives, to switch the government’s position from support to opposition of the St. Louis desegregation plan and to weaken the environmental response to toxic waste sites like Missouri’s dioxin contamination. None of this would have been known without government officials violating rules like Comey did.
The New York Times, Washington Post and other mainstream media readily took the bait on the IG report. The Times wrote about the IG’s “stinging rebuke.” Newsday editorialized about the “hubris of James Comey.” The New York Sun concluded Trump was right to fire Comey. Right-wing editorial pages went much farther, with the New York Post writing about Comey”s Road to Disgrace.
No surprise that the obstructor-in-chief took it a step farther in a tweet. “Perhaps never in the history of our Country has someone been more thoroughly disgraced and excoriated than James Comey in the just released Inspector General’s Report. He should be ashamed of himself!”
It is true the IG sharply criticized Comey. Horowitz said Comey “violated applicable policies and his Employment Agreement,” failed to “immediately alert the FBI” that he had given his lawyers material with six words classsified CONFIDENTIAL, and had engaged in “unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information about the Flynn investigation.”
But did Comey violate the law? No.
Did he lie to investigators? No.
Did he leak classified information to the press? No.
And what was it he disclosed about the Flynn investigation? It was that the president of the United States had tried to get him to drop it, an act tantamount to obstruction of justice. Comey’s disclosure was a public service that intentionally triggered the Mueller special counsel investigation that turned up all the instances of obstruction by Trump that followed that first one.
Trump trying to fire Mueller. Trying to get the White House counsel to lie about firing Mueller. Trying to get the White House counsel to create a false document to cover up trying to fire Mueller. Trying to get his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about negotiating for Trump Tower Moscow deep into the 2016 election campaign. Refusing to appear to answer questions in person from the special counsel, failing to be truthful in his responses and then refusing to answer follow-up questions.
Benjamin Wittes, the editor of Lawfare, demolished Horowitz’s case against Comey writing he is baffled at “The inspector general of the United States Department of Justice taking the position that a witness to gross misconduct by the president of the United States has a duty to keep his mouth shut about what he saw.” https://www.lawfareblog.com/what-comey-email-report-really-says
Would the nation really be better off if Comey had not alerted the public to the president’s improper and possibly illegal actions? Would the nation be better off if there hadn’t been a Mueller investigation with its trove of presidential wrongdoing?
The IG report centered on seven memos Comey wrote after meeting with Trump including the document where Comey writes Trump said Flynn “didn’t do anything wrong”…. He said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4442900-Ex-FBI-Director-James-Comey-s-memos.html
Comey never has lied about what he did with these documents, which he considered personal rather than official documents. He kept the documents at home in his safe with a copy at work. After Trump fired him, Comey gave the document about dropping the Flynn investigation to a law professor to give to the Times’ Michael Schmidt. Comey hoped the subsequent Times story would lead to a special prosecutor and it did.
Horowitz claims the documents were official documents, not personal documents and therefore shouldn’t be been released under department policy. Wittes says Horowitz is arguably right because the government has such stringent rules about documents. But Wittes adds, “Keeping or retaining personal copies of unclassified government records is hardly a big deal.”
And remember this is a document that recorded a possible illegal act by the president.
Horowitz also blasts Comey for not immediately returning the documents after six words were retroactively classified at the lowest classification level of CONFIDENTIAL. But Wittes points out that the belated classification – ironically decided by FBI officials Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, whom Trump considers part of the Deep State conspiracy against him – was overly cautious. In fact a later court ruling on the classification left only one word classified – the name of a country. And the day after Comey learned of the classification decision he told Congress about it. That did not satisfy Horowitz.
Finally, Horowitz criticizes Comey for releasing sensitive information about the Flynn investigation. But, as Wittes demonstrates, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates had already made all but one of those details about the Flynn investigation public in congressional testimony.
The one fact Yates did not reveal had nothing to do with Flynn’s violation of the law. It was that the president had tried to kill the criminal investigation of his friend.
And that’s a fact the American people were entitled to know.