THROUGH the first half of 2016, James Comey, then FBI director, wrestled with what he considered to be an awful problem. For almost a year his agents had been investigating Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified information as secretary of state. Were this to result in a criminal charge, America would face a crisis, for Mrs Clinton was the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate. And like many Republicans back then, Mr Comey, a devout Christian interested in ethics, considered her Republican opponent unfit to be president. Yet this was not Mr Comey’s worry.
Mrs Clinton, as he acknowledges in his memoir, “A Higher Loyalty”, was never in serious danger of being indicted. Former officials are charged with mishandling intelligence rarely and only if they are shown to have done so knowingly, and there was little evidence that she had. The trouble was, millions of Republicans, deceived by decades of anti-Clinton conspiracy theories, were already convinced of her guilt. Mr Comey’s “challenge” was to spin the results of his investigation in a way that would deflect their inevitable anger and suspicion away from the FBI. He needed to close “the case in a way that maintained the confidence of the American people that their justice system was working in an honest, competent and non-political manner.”
It is strange that Mr Comey, even now, defends this preoccupation with how the FBI’s discreet inner working was perceived, not on what it concluded. His well-written memoir, which combines a powerful argument for principled leadership with some acid comment on Donald Trump’s mendacious, “ego driven” alternative, contains a lot of advice to the contrary. “Lady Justice wears a blindfold,” he writes. “She is not supposed to peek out to see how her political master wishes her to weigh a matter.” When it came to dealing with presidents, he stuck by that. He was sacked last year after, he claims credibly, denying Mr Trump’s request to back-pedal a counter-intelligence investigation into the president’s campaign team. But when it came to the people who elect presidents, Mr Comey peeked, with dire consequences.
He called a press conference at which he lambasted Mrs Clinton for being “extremely careless”—and then added, on the heels of that sensational news, that the FBI was letting her off the hook. It is hard to imagine the universe in which Mr Comey thought this would be seen as “non-political”. It suborned the authority of the Democratic attorney-general, Loretta Lynch, to decide whether Mrs Clinton should face charges. It consigned the Democratic candidate to political purgatory; even many of her supporters henceforth believed she was crooked. And far from insulating the FBI against accusations of bias, Mr Comey’s ruse united the electorate against it. Democrats accused him of gratuitously blackening Mrs Clinton’s name. Republicans accused him of failing to punish her wrongdoing. That suspicion, in turn, prepared the ground for Mr Trump’s bigger assault on the FBI and Robert Mueller, the special counsel who now runs the Russia probe.
Mr Comey’s tactic also established a pattern that would lead him, three months later, to intrude into the election more egregiously. After a new trove of Clinton e-mails emerged, a couple of weeks before the poll, he broke rules against electoral interference by informing Congress that he was reopening his investigation. Mrs Clinton’s polling lead collapsed, never to recover, even after Mr Comey let it be known, a couple of days before the election, that there was nothing to the new e-mails after all. Though it is impossible to prove he cost Mrs Clinton the presidency, it seems likely. That was some achievement for a discreet investigator dedicated to the sanctity of blind justice.
Mr Comey presents his book as a meditation on “ethical leadership”. And indeed the former prosecutor is plainly honest. An illustrious career battling mobsters (whose values and methods he recalls amid the mirrored glass of Trump Tower) and Dick Cheney on torture offers much proof of that. It also provides ground to trust Mr Comey’s word against Mr Trump’s over the circumstances of his sacking. That conflict, which forms a relatively minor and unsurprising part of his book, could be important to Mr Mueller’s investigation, and there is little reason to think, as some claim, that Mr Comey’s memoir has damaged his standing as a witness. His testimony has already been delivered to Congress.
There is also no cause to suppose, as many Trump fans do, that Mr Comey is part of a “deep state” plot against the president. His decision not to disclose the fact that Mr Trump’s team was also under investigation, even as the scandal over Mrs Clinton’s e-mails raged, was another service to the president, albeit a defensible one. And the Russia probe that has grown from that seedling is hardly the “witch-hunt” Mr Trump says it is. It has led to several criminal charges. Mr Comey, in short, has played an upstanding, at times heroic, part in Trump’s America. Yet, given his lead role in bringing it into being, his book is most useful as a guide to how an ethical leader screwed up.
Mr Comey’s error was to think his good intentions, chiefly his concern for the FBI’s independence, justified his overstepping the boundaries of institutional propriety. His main excuse, that the bureau was fated to play a role in the 2016 election anyway—it was investigating both presidential candidates, for goodness sake—emphasises his difficulty. But it is also self-serving and illogical. The threat of politicisation, to which extreme polarisation will make all independent institutions prone, argues for scrupulous professionalism, not compensatory activism. Mr Comey, who kept on his desk as a reminder of the FBI’s need for “oversight and restraint” a request by J. Edgar Hoover to wiretap Martin Luther King, had no excuse not to know that. His reputation will always suffer for his horrendous error, however many thousands of books he is about to sell.