James Comey is a smooth-talker whose poker face and Grandma style colloquisms bely a man who excels in the art of the sting and who will not be deterred in his mission. Comey might well be the oiliest snake in the pit, the penultimate control freak, causing both Democrat leaders and the GOP faithful to detest him. Wrapped in that disdain is an acknowledgement of his power.
He is the guy who in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, caused Rep. Maxine Waters to famously exclaim: “The FBI director has no credibility!” and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to utter her “I feel terrible,” following his classified House briefing. He is the same fellow eventually fired by the intel-bashing president. Trump called Comey a nut job and a showboat to his Russian friends. It was an admission of defeat dripping with anger. Trump got trumped.
I felt compelled to document my first conversation with the president-elect in a memo. To ensure accuracy, I began to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting. Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward.
-James Comey, Opening Statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee, 8 June 2017
Understanding Comey is an effort akin to reading a spy novel. Character is carefully crafted. Plots are thick and multi-veined. Nothing is as it seems. And, the ending is always a surprise.
What is known about Comey is what he reveals. He loved his position at the FBI. He cherished the independent nature of his role and often asserted a claim of “protecting” the agency. What can be presumed is that his allegiance to the FBI is not unlike a master defending his domain. He defied the will of his former boss, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, based on his objection to a single word and a meeting on a tarmac. He transgressed decades of precedent by announcing an “investigation” into a presidential candidate a week before the election. His stated rationale: to protect the FBI.
With such disregard for his superiors, Comey was the natural choice when it came to the Trump operation. He was the man assigned the task of stinging the new president; a task he undertook with the apparent mutual agreement of the Obama intelligence community.
As the last man standing, Comey was the only intel figure privy to the “salacious” material revealed in the Steele dossier along with collective findings of the intel agencies. Clapper and Brennan would be gone but Comey still had six years remaining. He had no misgivings about the new task. And so began his dance of stealth.
It was a sensitive operation. It first required that Comey put his victim at ease. There were constant reassurances that the president was technically not under investigation. It demanded an insouciant demeanor in his presence, one that kept alarm bells silent. In essence, Comey acted as a double agent.
Thus, when Trump asked him to drop the Flynn investigation, Comey demurred. When Trump asked for his loyalty, Comey played semantics. When Trump asked him to lift the cloud, Comey did not respond with outrage.
But Comey kept notes – detailed, contemporaneous memos designed to protect him and indict the president. No, there was not an investigation, technically. But Comey was giving the deal maker plenty of rope, recording every detail of their communications and sealing his surreptitious memos within his personal domain.
The former prosecutor and ex-FBI chief revealed his mission during his Senate testimony. When asked why he did not alert others to the president’s request to stop the Flynn investigation, he replied to Senator Collins:
It was of investigative interest us to try and figure out, so — what just happened with the president’s request. So I would not have wanted to alert the White House that it had happened until we figured out, what are we going to do with this investigatively?
It is worth noting that Comey did not report these presidential transgressions as they occurred. His prior Senate testimony did not indicate any obstruction by Trump or his demand for personal loyalty. No, he kept those bombshells under wrap, waiting for the rope to tighten.
This covert handling of the president’s requests were rightly questioned during today’s Senate hearing. Here’s the exchange between Senator Blunt and Comey about his silence.
BLUNT: Well, the point to me — the concern to me there is that all these things are going on. You, now, in retrospect — or at you, now, to this committee — that these were — you had serious concerns about what the president had, you believed, directed you to do, and had taken no action — hadn’t even reported up the chain of command, assuming you believe there is an “up the chain of command,” that these things had happened.
Do you have a sense of that, looking back, that that was a mistake?
COMEY: No. In fact, I think no action was the most important thing I could do to make sure there was no interference with the investigation.
Once again, Comey describes his interactions with Trump in the context of an investigation. It was the investigation that was not an investigation.
Only after Trump summarily fired the FBI director did he act to inform the American public. Even then, Comey kept his head down, passing his memos to a friend who passed them along to a news outlet – a covert act that beckons Deep Throat to those of us with that memory.
What motivated Comey? In his words: “I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel.”
Whether Comey’s secret memos will rise to the level of impeachment material is unknown. But we have to ask: if he believed their substance warranted the appointment of a special prosecutor, why did he wait? Why not release the info in January or February or March or April?
Comey’s own words today provide a clue:
Well, in looking at any witness, you look at consistency, track record, demeanor, record over time, that sort of thing.
We know Comey has a track record of defying his bosses, of compartmentalizing the workings of the FBI in protective boxes, of sweet talking his way out of difficult situations, of acting in a manner that ignores the common good when it comes to elections. This is consistent. We know he abided the inappropriate and possibly criminal requests of the president. We know he’s no choir boy though his “I was confused” befuddlement and folksy charm paints that persona.
When you look at “that sort of thing” it is hard to imagine he is a warrior for justice. It is much easier to believe that James Comey released his memos as a retaliatory act against a man he has called a liar and whose character he found suspect. This is the man who cut short his career and then vilified Comey to his Russian compatriots.
There is no black-and-white definition for James Comey. But as of today, we know one thing: he will get his man, come hell or high water, from within or without his beloved agency. Most especially, he’s not a guy to cross (or double cross) as Donald Trump has just learned.