Tuesday, November 1, 2016

What Comey can do to undo ComeyGate - and why

Brian Beutler at the New Republic goes beyond why Comey goofed and offers advice on what Comey can do to repair the damage caused by his vagueness.

… it was fairly easy to explain Comey’s [July] decision without reaching for the assumption of partisan motives. With interest in the Clinton email probe so pitched, and internal FBI dissent boiling over, exculpating Clinton (“the case itself was not a cliffhanger”) while criticizing her conduct (“extremely careless”) was arguably the only way for him to conclude the inquiry without harming the FBI’s integrity, causing a revolt within its ranks, or allowing the closure of the investigation to be turned into a one-sided partisan cudgel.

The recent discovery of emails that may have passed through Clinton’s home-brew server during an unrelated federal investigation of Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of Clinton’s closest aide, Huma Abedin, brought very similar considerations to the fore. To say nothing, as protocol dictated, would damage both Comey’s reputation and the bureau’s, if and when rogue agents leaked word about the email discovery to the press or the GOP Congress. Commenting publicly, by contrast, risked thumbing the scales of the election in opposite ways that were just as, if not more damaging to the FBI’s integrity and his own. To strike an appropriate balance (make another extraordinary statement, without clear partisan effect) would have required extreme precision.

To the extent Comey sought such balance, his letter to lawmakers on Friday failed miserably. He wrote, in his words, to “supplement [his] previous testimony” that the FBI “had completed its investigation of former Secretary Clinton’s personal email server,” because FBI officials would be seeking access to emails, the significance of which they “cannot yet assess.” In other words, Comey was placing Clinton in a state of investigative limbo because his agents found some emails that may amount to nothing.

And Trump and his mob are all too eager to insert themselves into that limbo and lie like hell.

… Republicans, up to and including Trump, are storming the campaign trail to willfully and euphorically distort Comey’s words. Clinton, along with her allies and her enemies, are demanding more information. Those FBI agents unhappy with what they view as the Bureau’s and the DOJ’s insufficient fervor for investigating Clinton are leaking freely, with impunity to create an aroma of criminality around Clinton—a horrifying window into the way law enforcement agencies at all levels of government would behave under the protection of a Trump presidency. If Comey’s goal was to protect the Bureau (manage internal dissent, maximize public faith in its independence, preserve his reputation as a distinguished public servant) he has accomplished just the opposite.

And here is where this entire framework for analyzing Comey’s conduct grows rickety. According to NBC News’ Pete Williams, the country’s premiere Justice Department reporter, Comey has no plans to address this issue again before the election on November 8. That makes it much harder to assume anything generous about his motives. If in trying to manage an extraordinary situation in an above-board way, Comey made a catastrophic error, the above analysis would point to him cleaning up his own mess, quickly. The fact that he is unwilling to do so suggests protecting the Bureau’s integrity wasn’t his prime motive after all.

What then to do?

Comey could undo a great deal of the damage he’s already done by coming forward one more time, without further delay, to dispel the “misleading impression” he helped create—to clarify that Clinton isn’t again the subject of an FBI criminal investigation; that the content of these emails is unknown; that they may well be duplicates or otherwise irrelevant to their investigation; and to atone for the fact that his effort to be evenhanded failed in ways that unnecessarily undermined Clinton’s campaign, and thus, possibly, the integrity of the election.

Comey needs to do it fast.

More on the leaks from the FBI

The leaks from FBI agents mentioned by Beutler (emphases above) are reported in a Wall Street Journal article that is behind a pay-wall and I do not have access. Here’s the WSJ link in case any of you do.

Jeffrey Toobin (New Yorker) weighs in on Comey’s responsibility for his vague letter and for the leaks.

… The issue is not the propriety of Comey’s letter. The issue is the propriety of Comey’s letter and the leaks that followed it. It is worth noting, at the outset, that Comey’s letter said only, “I­n connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation.” Within moments of the release of Comey’s letter, though, government sources leaked that the “unrelated case” was that of Anthony Weiner, who is being investigated for sexually explicit correspondence with an underage girl. Weiner, of course, is the estranged husband of Huma Abedin, a close aide to Hillary Clinton, and the leaks suggested that the new evidence consisted of e-mails found on computers that Weiner and Abedin may have shared.

But what was the actual evidence that prompted Comey’s letter, and what do the e-mails say? The answer depends on the news source. “The emails were not to or from Clinton,” according to the Los Angeles Times. But the Washington Post said, “The correspondence included emails between Abedin and Clinton.” And, according to the New York Times, “Senior law enforcement officials said that it was unclear if any of the emails were from Mrs. Clinton’s private server.” This muddled issue is crucial, because if none of the e-mails were to or from Clinton—who is the person running for President—then this new chapter of the investigation amounts to very little. (If the e-mails are duplicates of e-mails that the F.B.I. has already seen, or if they are simply irrelevant personal e-mails, then the story may also amount to little.)

But Comey has to step up and make that last point clearly and loudly.

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