‘I have great faith in Bob Mueller, but I just cant tell from the letter, why didn’t he decide?’
(Ben Sellers, Liberty Headlines) In one of his first opportunities to speak publicly since the conclusion of the Mueller report, former FBI Director James Comey said Tuesday that he was confused by Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s opting to defer to Attorney General William Barr on the decision to pursue obstruction of justice charges.
Mueller, according to the memo provided by the Justice Department, pointedly declined to say whether President Donald Trump’s May 2017 firing of Comey—as the FBI was in the midst of an investigation into Russian collusion—constituted obstruction.
Instead, Mueller wrote, “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
During a talk hosted by Queens University in Charlotte, NC, which was scheduled prior to the release of the report, Comey expressed his puzzlement at the verdict of his close friend and colleague Mueller, who preceded Comey as FBI director.
“I have great faith in Bob Mueller,” Comey said, “but I just can’t tell from the letter, why didn’t he decide?”
Barr ultimately made the call, deciding that since the original pretext of collusion was debunked, there was not a strong enough case to be made for obstruction.
Echoing Comey’s own July 2016 decision not to pursue a case against Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, the attorney general said that it would be difficult for prosecutors to establish intent.
At Tuesday’s lecture, however, Comey second-guessed Barr’s assessment, saying that, in his experience, the notion that obstruction cases hinged on a person’s actual guilt was false.
“Obstruction crimes matter without regard… of the underlying crime,” he said.
While his own flip-flopping on the standard of intent may have been lost on him, Comey did find humor in the reversals of others, as partisan objectives quickly shifted with the political trade winds.
He said the current situation Congressional Democrats find themselves in—attempting to push for the full release of the special counsel’s report—is a stark departure from their demand to keep sensitive information classified during the Hillary Clinton investigation.
“I find it slightly ironic that the people who were beating on me then are all in favor of transparency,” Comey said.
‘Who Have They Spawned?’
Comey himself called for the full release of the Mueller report, saying it was “very important that the American people get transparency.”
But that, too, came with a touch of irony since much of his own talk seemed largely scripted, relying only on a set of pre-approved questions from Queens University students that focused more on his book than on the controversies swirling around him.
Comey presented himself as disarmingly candid and self-effacing—joking about everything from his 6-foot-8 height to his “impostor complex” to his practice of reading a room to glean whatever information he could use to his advantage.
However, in true FBI form, his seemingly earnest anecdotes often fell short of revealing the full picture.
Comey made no mention of recent calls for a new special counsel investigation into collusion and election interference—this time centered around the FBI’s role in working with the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee to launch and disseminate a smear campaign against its GOP political adversary.
And while Comey spent considerable time talking about the qualities of a great leader—including the importance of cultivating and nurturing talented subordinates and fostering an atmosphere of trust—he made no references to the partisan operatives who infiltrated the top levels of the FBI on his watch.
Underlings like Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, counterintelligence chief Peter Strzok, attorney Lisa Page and general counsel James Baker promoted a culture of overt political bias and misconduct, as critically noted in a report by the agency’s own inspector general.
“One measure of a leader is, who have they spawned?” Comey observed in one of the evening’s many glib aphorisms, inspired by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bob Dylan.
Best Boss Ever?
While reflecting on his own FBI leadership, Comey hinted at a bureau whose director was so preoccupied with being seen as an approachable everyman—going to the cafeteria every day to get a sandwich and mingle with the hoi poloi, even when he didn’t have time—that he often went out of his way to let others hold the reins.
“The best bosses would rather not be standing center stage,” he said, drawing a contrast between his own management and that of his last boss, Donald Trump.
“The best person I’ve ever seen in a leadership role is Barack Obama,” Comey said.
He noted that the ex-president—who hired Comey as FBI director even though he had given money to Obama’s political opponents, John McCain and Mitt Romney—would always sit in a soft chair and spend the first five to 10 minutes of a meeting completely silent, allowing the presenter to speak.
Such “kind and tough,” “confident and humble” leadership, Comey said, was akin to a teacher who never had to yell at students but could communicate disappointment with a simple inflection, or use the mere raising of his eyebrows to convey humor.
“He got something much more important than loyalty,” Comey said of the hypothetical teacher. “… He got love.”
By contrast, Comey left no doubts about his lingering grudge against Trump.
“Insecure people cannot listen,” he said. “Just being silent as a boss is a threat to them.”
He said Trump always sat behind his desk and usually did all the talking. “There’s a block of wood on that steep hill,” Comey said. “… To tell him the truth … requires extreme courage and a willingness to interrupt the president.”
The Sting of Rejection
Comey neglected during his talk to mention Operation “Crossfire Hurricane,” through which the FBI had leaked to the media salacious hearsay and rumors drawn from unvetted sources within the Kremlin in a report originally commissioned as opposition research by the Hillary Clinton campaign for the express purpose of undermining Trump.
Even though Comey’s organization used the Steele Dossier, under false pretenses, to launch an investigation into the Republican candidate and to eavesdrop on Trump staffers for months prior to the November 2016 election, Comey mocked Trump for seeking early reassurances of the FBI director’s loyalty, which he repeatedly rebuffed.
“It occurred to me right in that moment, this person doesn’t know anything about leadership,” Comey said.
Notwithstanding his refusal to pledge loyalty to Trump or “be part of his team,” and despite Trump’s public and private expressions of displeasure, Comey said the prospect of being fired “didn’t enter my mind.”
He seemed to acknowledge his own belief that the FBI’s investigation into Russian collusion would provide him with an insurance policy to keep his position in the new administration.
By the time of his firing in May 2017, “I knew the man did not like me,” Comey said, but it “never occurred to me that a president whose campaign was being investigated” might oust the lead investigator.
Comey described his humiliatingly public and unceremonious firing as one of the darkest moments of his life.
Comparing it with the “indescribable pain” of losing an infant son and with his experience consoling victims’ family members after the Sept. 11 attacks, he said it left him with a feeling of “numbness.”
Afterward, he spent the entire plane ride home drinking “pinot noir from a paper cup,” he said, “and I just stared out the window.”
A ‘Nightmare’ Scenario
Comey, a self-declared former Republican, said that in his book he compares Trump with a forest fire.
“I believe he is doing tremendous damage to core American values [in] the relentless effort to portray [institutions like the FBI] as corrupt,” Comey said.
He also stood firmly by his many controversial actions during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“I will defend the way we made those decisions to my grave,” he said.
That included the decision to inject himself twice into the election: First, he publicly announced the closure of an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private server, in July 2016.
Then, he reopened the case in late October, shortly before the election, saying a trove of more Clinton emails had been discovered on an unsecured laptop.
“The Oct. 28 decision was a nightmare from which I can’t awaken,” he said.
He lamented being thrust into the role of referee following a scandalous tarmac meeting between Bill Clinton and then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who despite recusing herself continued to exert pressure on Comey’s decision.
“Each choice we had to make was a bad [option] and a worse one,” he said.
Comey spoke sheepishly to the largely anti-Trump audience of the dilemma he faced in the decision to publicly disclose the appearance of missing Clinton emails on the laptop of former-congressman-turned-convicted-pedophile-sex-offender Anthony Weiner, D-NY, who was at the time married to Clinton’s personal assistant.
However, Comey neglected to mention the FBI’s earlier efforts to suppress the emails, which they had knowledge of for weeks prior to the October revelation.
Although Comey said the thought of harming Clinton’s election chances was “excruciating,” he seemed to see little wrong with the public servants both above and below him who routinely wove partisan attacks on Trump into their deliberations and decision-making.
He noted that in a meeting to discuss the reopening the Clinton email case, Trisha Anderson—a deputy general counsel who was later implicated in the scandal over warrant applications to covertly eavesdrop on the Trump campaign—asked if the FBI should take into account that a criminal investigation into Clinton might help elect Trump.
“Not for a moment,” Comey replied, “because down that path lies the death of the FBI as an institution.”
All arguments for truth, justice, ethics and the rule of law aside, Comey knew reopening the investigation was the right thing because failure to do so might ultimately blow back on the FBI when it was revealed.
Comey also described a security briefing in which he, Obama and CIA Director John Brennan discussed whether to tell the newly-elected Trump about the unverified allegations of potentially compromising sexual innuendo contained in the Steele Dossier.
They agreed to do it, Comey said, because “one of the ways you undermine an adversary is to tell them you know all about it.” It was unclear whether the “adversary” being ambiguously referred to was Trump or Russia.
Although Comey said he saw an inevitable reckoning for Trump within the Republican Party, he remained optimistic about the long-term prospects for the country.
“These demagogue fevers break very quickly,” he said, ignoring the unparalleled peace and prosperity Trump has ushered in during the first two years of his term, even while subject to a politically motivated investigation and incessant calls for impeachment.
Comey likened Trump to Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. Ironically, like current House Democrats, McCarthy led Congressional hearings into whether members of the government and Hollywood establishment had been compromised by Soviet-era Russia.
“That guy disappeared overnight when the American people said ‘enough,’ Comey observed. “I expect that history will repeat itself.”