Come walk with me. Today we are accepting a post-publication, book-peddling challenge that was issued as a footnote, of sorts.
Fired FBI Director James Comey has been urging everyone to walk in his shoes as he re-lives his decision that became perhaps the most controversial move by a non-candidate in the history of U.S. presidential politics.
More in sorrow than anger — a tone Comey has perfected and portrayed at every TV book-stop — Comey has explained he wrote his book, “A Higher Loyalty,” so his critics (legal and political) can hopefully “put themselves in my shoes,” as he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. He wants everyone to see his dilemma as he lived it. Especially all the still-fuming Hillary Clinton stalwarts, who are sure Comey cost them the victory they had secured by announcing just 11 days before Election Day 2016 that, because of new evidence, he was reopening the FBI’s probe of then-Secretary of State Clinton’s use of a private email server for official business.
But what we will really discover after becoming Comey’s solemates and walking in his shoes, is that Comey made precisely the wrong decision. Because, at the time he announced that, he had no idea whether he had any new evidence at all. And it turned out he didn’t.
We will have a new, sharper vision of just why Comey made the mistake that could have not just cost one candidate a presidential victory. And, taking an even longer view, in gifting us with the presidency of Donald Trump, Comey may have made possible an outcome that may have altered the course of America’s world leadership and destiny forever.
Comey’s Oct. 28, 2016, announcement led to a plunge in Clinton’s polls. Polling expert Nate Silver concluded in fivethirtyeight.com that Comey’s move meant a swing to Trump of a maximum of three or four percentage points in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida — or a minimum of one percentage point. But because Clinton lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than one percent, that alone would have given Clinton an Electoral College victory.
But it is also true that Clinton was so vulnerable because of her own multiple failures to appeal to the blue collar voters who once were the rock-solid Democratic base. And Trump excelled at appealing to those once-Democratic voters who had become mad-as-hell, not-going-to-take-it-anymore.
Now, let’s slip into Comey’s shoes and walk his talk.
Sometime in October, Comey was informed that a laptop belonging to the husband of Clinton aide Huma Abadin, the perpetually perverse ex-Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), contained many thousands of Clinton emails the feds couldn’t legally see without a warrant. Comey, having publicly closed the Clinton email probe in summer, didn’t know if the emails contained classified info and posed a legal problem for Clinton.
Comey now publicly anguishes that he has felt nauseated and even on the verge of tears at having to make a tough choice between two doors — labeled “Speak” and “Conceal.” But that’s a classic false-choice.
Comey indeed had a better option: Tell Attorney General Loretta Lynch he was seeking a warrant to search the Clinton emails on Weiner’s computer, but say nothing publicly until he knew if he actually had new email evidence or not. Comey learned there was no damaging evidence just two days before the election. But by then, Comey couldn’t un-ring the bell he’d rung that tolled Clinton’s destiny.
But Comey surely knew all his options. We just need to read between his written lines. Comey, though widely respected in the FBI, knew he had enemies inside the FBI who, when he sought a warrant, could leak a deliberately mis-spun story claiming Comey was sitting on evidence damaging to Clinton until after the election!
“Had I not said something,” Comey wrote on Page 208 of his book, “what was the prospect of a leak during that week? Pretty high.” He wrote that someone in the FBI’s New York office might have leaked the info, if he hadn’t publicly announced it. But standing in Comey’s shoes, I believe Comey, not being a political type, now knows he underestimated the political impact of his Oct. 28 announcement. I think he was mainly worried about protecting himself against being smeared by a leak that might shatter his honorable reputation.
Perched atop his FBI pedestal, Comey’s main motive seemed to be to cover his own aspirations. He surely knows now that was wrong. He’s probably ashamed of what he did but can’t quite bring himself to say so. And, of course, he hasn’t been properly pressed on it yet by his media interviewers.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.