June 8, 2017
James Comey’s Intellectual History
by Nicholas Schmidle
More than three decades before the F.B.I. began investigating whether members of Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign had colluded with the Russian government, James Comey—the Bureau’s recently fired director—envisioned a Russian conquest of America. He was then a senior at the College of William & Mary, in Virginia, with a column in the school paper, the Flat Hat. His commentaries satirized everything from crooked politicians to classmates who fretted about life after graduation.
On December 4, 1981, he parodied Cold War appeasers. “One must pause and reflect upon nuclear holocaust,” he wrote. “I doubt many students have taken the time to consider the ramifications of nuclear conflict.” The school’s gym would surely close, he warned; intramural basketball would cease, and a campus film series would end. “The stakes are too high: It’s time we folded. We should unilaterally disarm.” President Ronald Reagan, Comey wrote, should send the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, a note “offering unconditional surrender.”
Liberals, he implied, would be pleased with a Soviet occupation: “The National Rifle Association would be flushed, crime would decrease, the Pentagon would be a shopping mall, Jerry Falwell would be sadistically tortured.”
Comey is now fifty-six. On Thursday, he is scheduled to testify before the Senate about Russian interference in the 2016 election. He will also likely be asked about the several personal interactions that he had with Donald Trump before May 9th, when Trump fired him. Trump’s view of Comey has oscillated wildly over the past year. In July, he disparaged the F.B.I.’s “phony investigation” of Hillary Clinton after it failed to lead to an indictment. In October, Trump praised Comey’s “guts” for reopening the case. This spring, the President became angry, in part, because in a series of awkward encounters Comey refused to pledge loyalty to him.
On February 14th, Trump cornered Comey after a terrorism-related briefing in the Oval Office. Trump’s national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, had resigned the previous day, and Trump urged Comey to drop the case against Flynn. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting Flynn go,” Trump said, according to remarks Comey prepared ahead of tomorrow’s hearing. Comey did not drop the case. Indeed, because Trump kept meeting with him and discussing the Russia investigation, Comey had become not just a representative for the Bureau but also a kind of witness. Following a meeting at Trump Tower in January, Comey said that he went outside and immediately recorded their conversation on a laptop in an F.B.I. vehicle, adding, “Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward.”
Comey has told associates that he never tried to lure Trump into improprieties. “It wasn’t like Jim was going to the Mob boss, all wired up, trying to secretly extract a confession,” one associate told me. Yet, in Comey’s view, Trump’s behavior toward him repeatedly crossed the line, making him “an obstructor.” Based on Comey’s prepared remarks, his Senate testimony will lay the basis for this legal claim, without explicitly making the charge.
His testimony is likely to be supremely assured. A senior intelligence official said of Comey, “He likes the stage. He takes politicians’ questions apart. He loves the fact that he’s smarter than them.”
In October, 2003, Comey was asked, at his confirmation hearing to become the Deputy Attorney General, how he might handle a politically charged case implicating an Attorney General who refused to recuse himself. “I don’t care about politics,” he insisted. “I care about doing the right thing.” In a profile published that December in New York, Comey further smudged the lines of his political identity. He said that in his twenties he had been both a Communist and a Reaganite. “I’m not even sure how to characterize myself politically,” he went on. “Maybe at some point, I’ll have to figure it out.”
Over the past year, Comey’s detractors have debated his actions and decisions on normative grounds. Was it proper for him to hold a press conference to announce the F.B.I.’s findings on the Hillary Clinton e-mail case? Should he have sent a letter to Congress, days before the election, notifying them that he was reopening the investigation? Why didn’t he inform voters before November 8th that Trump’s campaign was under investigation for possible collusion with a foreign adversary? Meanwhile, there has been little focus on Comey’s moral and intellectual leanings.
Despite Comey’s protestations that he has no interest in politics, he has signalled some abiding concerns over the years. His college thesis, “The Christian in Politics,” is about power and integrity, and is anchored in a comparison of the political philosophies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell. Comey concluded that Falwell was a huckster who was inclined to “violate the constitutional separation of Church and State as well as the tax-exempt status of his church.” He was repelled by what he saw as Falwell’s false projection of virtue. Comey considered Niebuhr, however, to be an intellectual giant, one of “the world’s greatest moral and political theologians.” He concurred with Niebuhr that Christians were “essential to the political order,” and that a life led in emulation of Jesus was one “guided by the impossible norm of love,” and that such an existence placed “political institutions under greater possibilities.”
At the same time, Comey noted, Niebuhr recognized that it could be dangerous for a politician to see himself as a moral beacon. “The pretensions of virtue are as offensive to God as the pretensions of power,” Niebuhr said. Earlier this year, Comey, speaking at the University of Texas, echoed Niebuhr’s warning, saying, “John Adams once said to Thomas Jefferson, in one of the great letter exchanges, ‘Power always thinks it has a great soul.’ There’s great danger that I will fall in love with my own virtue.”
Upon graduating, Comey continued to voice political opinions. In May, 1982, the Times published a letter in which Comey criticized an editorial for its “condemnation of Right-to-Lifers” and for its suggestion that the federal government should “pay for abortion through Medicaid.” Comey avoided expressing his personal views on abortion, but he emphasized that Roe v. Wade, in upholding bans on late-term abortions, “explicitly stated that government has an interest in abortion and is therefore justified in exercising authority over the actions of pregnant women.” Comey went on:
The Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade gives all women the right to abortion but not a guarantee to the fulfillment of that right. Most of the rights Americans possess do not include such entitlement. We have a right to travel. Not all can afford to travel. Why then do you not criticize the Government for discriminating against the poor by not providing plane tickets? The same could be said of many elective medical procedures. And abortion is an elective procedure.
Two years later, after the Wall Street Journal ran a piece equating smokers’ rights with a woman’s right to alleviate morning sickness with medication, Comey objected, writing, “We may tolerate cigarette smoking because the threat is to the user, but the potential danger of the anti-nausea drug goes beyond the pregnant woman.” He submitted another letter to the Times, criticizing a proposal in the Albany legislature that would require New York supermarkets to sell New York wine. Such a law, he argued, would reveal a “naked preference” for state-specific economies. Comey had voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980, but his evolution into a Reagan Republican was evident.
After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, in 1985, Comey clerked for Judge John Walker, Jr., George H. W. Bush’s cousin, in the Southern District of New York. Comey became a Republican. In public, however, he portrayed himself as nonpartisan. In 1996, he became the managing Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia’s Richmond office. He soon oversaw a successful program to crack down on guns in the city. He made a point of declaring that the initiative was “totally apolitical.”
Comey remained a conservative, but he carried an aura of political independence into the next two Administrations. In March, 2004, he became the acting Attorney General when John Ashcroft went into the hospital. After Comey learned that the N.S.A. had established a warrantless domestic-wiretapping program—and that the legal standing for the program was dubious—he told President George W. Bush that he was being “poorly served” by advisers. Prepared to resign over the matter, he quoted Martin Luther: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” In the end, resignation wasn’t necessary: Bush embraced his counsel. Later that year, Comey scolded Thomas DiBiagio, the U.S. Attorney in Maryland, who had pressed his staff to generate “front-page” indictments of Democrats before Election Day; DiBiagio, Comey said, had allowed politics to “taint” the Justice Department’s work. Before Comey left the Bush Administration, in 2005, he appointed a special prosecutor to lead an investigation of leaks that ultimately resulted in the conviction of Scooter Libby, the chief of staff for Vice-President Dick Cheney.
Four years later, Obama reportedly considered Comey for a Supreme Court vacancy. After Comey became the F.B.I. director, in May, 2013, he publicly contradicted the Administration on several issues. He told Congress that he saw no reason why survivors of the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, couldn’t testify on Capitol Hill. This undermined the position of the Justice Department, which had argued that such public discussions could jeopardize the F.B.I.’s criminal investigation. Senator Lindsey Graham, who was eager to have high-profile hearings on Benghazi, said, “I was very pleased to hear these comments by the F.B.I. director.”
In 2014, at a forum at the University of Chicago Law School, Comey contradicted Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder by endorsing the idea of the “Ferguson effect”—the notion that crime rates in America were rising, in part, because police were being circumscribed by activist groups, such as Black Lives Matter, which used video evidence to document violent abuse of citizens. “Something deeply disturbing is happening in places across America,” Comey said. “Far more people are being killed in many American cities, many of them people of color, and it’s not the cops doing the killing.” He went on, “Part of the explanation is a chill wind that has blown through law enforcement over the last year, and that wind is surely changing behavior. In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime?” Amnesty International called Comey’s comments “outrageous.”
It wasn’t the first time that Comey had stumbled when addressing racial politics. In 1980, at William & Mary, he set off a campus-wide controversy when he published a series of articles in the Flat Hat about the school’s struggle to increase minority enrollment. The articles were generally balanced, but, in the opening paragraphs of the series, he noted, “There are those at the College who feel that William & Mary does not need to attract more black students, and is in fact practicing ‘massive reverse discrimination.’ ” Comey then quoted a tenured white supremacist in the sociology department, Vernon Edmonds, describing him as “one of a group of social scientists nationwide who believe in the strong possibility of a genetic intelligence gap between races.” (Edmonds was later exposed as a financial supporter of David Duke.) Edmonds, Comey wrote, believed that “affirmative action is a futile attempt only tolerated because ‘social concerns are dominated by feeling, not science.’ ” The Flat Hat received many letters of protest. Professors in the sociology department disavowed Edmonds’s remarks, saying, “We consider Professor Edmonds’s views to be unfounded, ill-advised and clearly insensitive.” Comey responded by suggesting that his reporting was rigorously impartial: “I do not agree with Professor Edmonds’ views. They are intelligently presented by him, however, and are crucial to the issue of affirmative action. Such opinions, though they are in an extreme minority at the College, do exist and must be presented in any balanced piece.”
Comey’s ambition to seem free of political bias was perhaps most tested by the Hillary Clinton e-mail-server case. When two of Comey’s top advisers first told him that classified material might have been at risk, Comey recognized that the case would place the Bureau in a precarious situation. If agents found evidence to prosecute Clinton, the F.B.I. would infuriate half the country; if they failed to find anything, the Bureau would infuriate the other half.
Comey had been acquainted with some of the scandals that had swirled around the Clintons. In the nineteen-nineties, he worked briefly as a counsel on the Senate Whitewater Committee investigation. And in 2002, while serving as the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, Comey directed the investigation of President Bill Clinton’s last-minute pardon of Marc Rich, the fugitive businessman whose wife had donated four hundred and fifty thousand dollars to the Clinton Library between 1998 and 2000. Comey took the pardon as a personal affront. In 1992, he had flown to Moscow and Zurich, attempting to lure Rich back to the U.S. to face trial. When he learned that Clinton had pardoned Rich, perhaps as a favor for the campaign donations, he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “It takes your breath away.”
A year into the Hillary Clinton server probe, F.B.I. agents on the case concluded that they were unlikely to find evidence to prove criminal intent. Comey held a press conference to announce that the case against Clinton was closed, but—perhaps in a clumsy bid to seem impartial—chastised her for being “extremely careless” with her e-mails. Louis DiGregorio, an F.B.I. agent in the New York office at the time, was stunned by the press conference, feeling that the announcement had put the F.B.I. in an awkward bind. (He recently retired.) “I don’t give two shits about politics in Washington,” he told me. “We rarely announce any status of our investigations in public. We might call a target’s or a subject’s lawyer and say, ‘We’re not working on this anymore,’ but we always leave the door open. If you stray from that road, you can come back, but you’ll pay the consequences.”
After the press conference, Breitbart News went on the attack against Comey, suggesting that he was a liberal in disguise. Before joining the F.B.I., Comey had been the general counsel at Lockheed Martin. One Breitbart report noted that he had earned six million dollars the same year that Lockheed Martin had donated money to the Clinton Foundation. This clearly implicated Comey, Breitbart declared, in Washington’s “big-money cronyism culture.”
During the election cycle, it was apparent that the political divisions in the country at large had permeated the F.B.I.’s New York office. “People there really hated Hillary Clinton,” a federal law-enforcement officer told me. (The F.B.I. is more than eighty per cent white, and predominantly male.) The TVs were often locked on Fox News. DiGregorio considered the office, like the rest of the F.B.I., to be “very conservative,” adding, “You’re not going to get Abbie Hoffman signing up for this kind of work.” James Kallstrom, a former F.B.I. agent in charge of the New York office, went on the radio and derided the Clintons as a “crime family,” and called their foundation “a cesspool.” (Kallstrom is a former marine, and his foundation, the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation, had received a million-dollar check from Trump.)
In October, Comey learned that agents in the New York office had found thousands of Clinton e-mails on a laptop seized from Anthony Weiner, the former congressman, whose wife, Huma Abedin, was the vice-chairman of Clinton’s campaign. Comey conferred with his aides. Normally, the F.B.I. would conduct such an investigation in silence; secrets were the Bureau’s “lifeblood,” Comey once said. But, according to personal and F.B.I. associates of Comey’s, he was concerned that someone in the New York office might leak this development to the press.
Since Comey had declared the case closed, in July, he felt compelled to announce that it was being reopened. If he did not, he feared, and the news was leaked by Clinton’s many opponents in the Bureau, it could seem as if Comey had been trying to protect her. Comey’s executive assistant for national security, Michael Steinbach, told the Times, “In my mind, at the time, Clinton is likely to win. It’s pretty apparent. So what happens after the election, in November or December? How do we say to the American public: ‘Hey, we found some things that might be problematic. But we didn’t tell you about it before you voted’? The damage to our organization would have been irreparable.” (Comey apparently wasn’t as worried about liberals in the Bureau leaking the news that the Trump campaign was under investigation for possibly colluding with the Russian government.)
On October 28th, Comey sent a letter to Congress revealing that he was reopening the server case. The document almost immediately became public. On Fox News, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, suggested that the internal threat Comey had felt was real. “Did I hear about it?” Giuliani said about the laptop discovery. “You’re darn right I heard about it.” He added that former agents at the Bureau had told him that “there’s a revolution going on inside the F.B.I., and it’s now at a boiling point.” (The special agent in charge of the Bureau’s criminal division in New York has recently referred to stopping internal leaks as a primary focus of his job, promising to deliver “heads on sticks.”)
Nine days after Comey sent his letter to Congress, the Bureau revealed that the e-mails on Weiner’s laptop amounted to nothing. But during this period the national press fixated on the spectacle, and Clinton’s lead dropped significantly—and, perhaps, decisively—in national polls.
Comey has said that he has no regrets over the server investigation. His testimony on Thursday will no doubt underscore his belief that—no matter what people say about him—he is a figure of impartial justice. In April, USA Network aired the first episode of a six-part documentary titled “Inside the FBI: New York.” Comey, who agreed to let a film crew embed in the New York office for a year, has appeared in several episodes. In a scene deleted from the televised series, he said, “We are never on anyone’s side. Sometimes, in a polarized world, it’s hard for people to even conceive of that.”