Patience, Paul Gosar. Save your words for James Comey until this report is released
Opinion: Yes, James Comey mishandled memos. But William Barr's investigation is likely to reveal a lot more worth criticizing.
The inspector general for the Justice Department, Michael Horowitz, released a report last week on the mishandling of memos by former FBI Director James Comey.
Republicans pounced on the IG report and attempted to spin it as a thorough discrediting of Comey and all his works, most prominently the investigation of potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.
Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, never a voice of moderation or nuance, issued a statement: “James Comey has time and time again proven himself to be a liar, void of ethics and moral clarity. To call James Comey a clown would be offensive to the carnival community.”
Rep. Andy Biggs, who is capable of discernment, nevertheless declared that “(Comey’s) audacity, arrogance, and insubordination know no bounds.”
Now, Comey has proved himself to be a moral egoist who sees himself above the rules, as the IG had established regarding how he handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. And now in how he handled seven memos memorializing his interactions with President Donald Trump.
However, Republicans made a substantive and tactical mistake in hauling the howitzers into service over this particular incident.
Comey's behavior is excusable (to a point)
Substantively, Comey’s behavior was understandable, up to a point.
Trump is an untrustworthy person who routinely throws associates and subordinates under the bus. The wonder is why anyone agrees to work with or for him to begin with.
Trump was attempting to engage Comey directly, outside the usual protocols and chain of command, regarding highly sensitive matters, such as the Russian collusion investigation and perjury by Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor.
After such encounters, Comey instantly wrote a memo of the exchange, when it was freshest in his mind. He then shared the memos with a small circle of high-ranking associates in the FBI.
As the IG report makes unarguably clear, Comey’s interactions with the president were in his official capacity. That, and sharing the memos inside the FBI, made them official records and subject to all the laws and regulations governing such.
Comey kept copies of the memos in his personal safe and did not turn those copies over to the FBI after he was fired. Both were violations of rules.
That acknowledged, Comey’s behavior to this point is understandable, even excusable.
Comey had reason to believe that a time would come in which Trump would mischaracterize his interactions with Comey in an attempt to damage or destroy his reputation.
Creating a contemporaneous record of them, sharing it with others, and keeping a copy for himself was a reasonable defensive action, even if the rules forbade the latter.
Where his actions went too far
But from that point on, Comey’s actions become unreasonable and indefensible.
Shortly after his firing, Comey shared the memos with three lawyers working for him. Comey acknowledged that Trump had the authority to dismiss him. At the time, there were no legal matters pending that made sharing the memos with his lawyers arguably necessary or even desirable. And sharing the memos outside the FBI was a much bigger breach of the rules than quietly keeping copies in his personal safe.
Then the moral ego got the better of Comey. He arranged to leak one of the memos to the press, in an admitted attempt to force the appointment of a special prosecutor for the Russian collusion investigation.
That wasn’t keeping a copy for potential use as a defense against a false characterization in an attempt to destroy his reputation. That was using the memo as an offensive weapon against Trump, in a preemptive strike.
That was an abuse of Comey’s former position and renders what was understandable, keeping copies of the memos, into something malign.
Barr's report will be the bigger deal
So, in the end, Comey’s behavior was condemnable. But, tactically, Republicans should be more targeted about what they are condemning as a result of this particular report.
Attorney General William Barr has launched an investigation into the origins of the Russian-Trump campaign collusion investigation. Based upon the publicly available evidence, it’s likely to find that the country has been convulsed by first an FBI investigation and then one by a special prosecutor that were based upon insufficient evidence to warrant the investigative activities engaged in.
That would be a very serious matter. But the body politic is close to dismissing everything about this topic as just partisan politics.
Republicans would be better served by keeping most of their powder dry until the Barr report is published.
Reach Robb at email@example.com.