The political world shook last week when FBI Director James Comey announced the agency would be reopening its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server a mere 11 days before the election. Since then, the fierce world of punditry has erupted in both conservative jubilation and liberal fury, and a fiercer debate over the emails has reignited in the background. Amid all of this, however, one truth has often been lost amid the sound bites: Comey made a serious mistake.
My critique of Comey does not come from some adoration of Secretary Clinton, nor in defense of her illegal email server — its creation alone says much of the first woman who would be president. Rather, my anger focuses on Comey’s flagrant disregard for standard Justice Department protocol, and I find a serious issue with the degree of certainty he used when commenting on an issue that is anything but.
When Comey made his announcement on Oct. 28, he did so for a specific reason: Emails were found on a computer shared between Anthony Weiner, a disgraced former congressman, and his then-wife Huma Abedin, a long-time Clinton personal aide. These emails were discovered in an investigation of Weiner completely unrelated to Clinton’s email server, and critically, their content was entirely unknown to the FBI at the time of discovery.
Nonetheless, being completely unaware of their content and relevance, Comey declared the investigation reopened, saying, “Because those emails appear to be pertinent to our investigation, I agreed that we should take appropriate steps to obtain and review them.”
In this, the man charged with leading our nation’s chief investigative body made a critical mistake. As former head of the Justice Department Eric Holder points out, this move was a breach of the long-standing Justice Department policy of refraining from commenting on, or even acknowledging the existence of, an ongoing investigation. Furthermore, one must wonder how he came to the conclusion said emails were relevant in the first place, though I will leave it to the investigators to decide their merit.
The crucial part of this entire ordeal is simple: Without even a reasonable suspicion, the director of the FBI stood in front of the nation barely more than a week before an intense, fiercely heated election and set loose a wave of misguided conspiracy theories. Rather than sticking to the book, Comey confidently went to the public offering soundbites in the place of sensibility and nonsense in the place of nuance.
Commenting on an investigation distracts from the typical detached, methodological manner we’ve come to expect and demand from our Justice Department officials. In this stirring of the coals, Comey has lent legitimacy to the nonsense conspiracy theories and misguided assumptions that surround 2016, more so than our other elections, and put a permanent blotch on the FBI’s record.
Legal cases simply must be handled in a consistent and fair manner. We cannot allow our precious legal standards to be flouted with such impunity merely because we’re in the closing chapter of an election. Countless attorneys general, FBI heads and federal investigators from all ends of the political spectrum have served our nation valiantly for years without straying into the perilous zone of publicly commenting on an ongoing investigation. Indeed, when Holder and dozens of other DOJ officials signed a letter urging impartiality and condemning Comey’s announcement, they were attempting to salvage what they could of a terrible situation.
“We cannot recall a prior instance where a senior Justice Department official – Republican or Democrat – has, one the eve of a major election, issued a public statement where the mere disclosure of information may impact the election’s outcome, yet the official acknowledges the information to be examined may not be significant or new.”
So said Holder’s letter, aptly explaining the severity of Comey’s move and the serious consequence it may yet have on our electoral outcomes. While I do not doubt Comey’s integrity, patriotism or good intentions, I now must unfortunately come to doubt his judgement.