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.”