The Democrats calling for James Comey’s head should cut it out. They’re making a political death wish.
Many of them resent the FBI director’s late intrusion into the presidential election, when he restarted an inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s private email server then quickly produced nothing.
“He should pack his things and go,” Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia said. “It would not be a bad thing for the American people if he did step down,” Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, chimed in.
It would be bad, however, for getting to the bottom of serious, unsubstantiated charges about possible connections between President-elect Donald Trump and the Russian government. If Comey steps down or is pushed out, it would make it easier for Trump and his likely attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to pick a new director of the FBI, who serves a 10-year term but can be fired at any time by a president willing to endure the political heat.
A Trump-friendly FBI chief could easily doom a criminal inquiry into whether anyone associated with Trump or his campaign was in contact with Russian sources about the hacking of Democrats’ email accounts and the release of embarrassing contents during the presidential election. Involvement by Americans in what U.S. intelligence agencies have said was Russian meddling could be a criminal act and is in the purview of the FBI.
The Clinton disclosure was a huge mistake by Comey, who bowed to pressure from inside the bureau and from Republicans. On Oct. 28, he notified Congress and the public about a new line of inquiry into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state in a case he had concluded without criminal charges months earlier. This was against department policy and over the objections of Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Nine days later, Comey said no evidence was uncovered in this new investigation.
But this was all in the final stages of the election; some polls and the Clinton campaign suggest it tilted the election to Trump.
The current controversy began with memos written by a respected former British intelligence agent working for Republican opponents of Trump. The memos include unvetted reports suggesting that Russia has incriminating financial and personal information about the president-elect and that people connected to the Republican candidate communicated with Russians about the hacking and leaking of private Democratic emails during the election campaign.
None of this has been verified, despite efforts to do so by journalists. Some of it may be deliberately misleading, and some of it is known to be wrong. The U.S. intelligence agencies, however, took it seriously enough to brief Trump, President Barack Obama and congressional leaders on it. The Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, after first ducking the issue, now says it will investigate the allegations.
High-level former Justice Department officials, Democrats who remain furious over Comey’s decision on Clinton, nevertheless are convinced that he’d try to conduct an honest and thorough investigation of the Russia-Trump charges.
Comey, a Republican whose term expires in 2023, has the authority to investigate any leads, including the ones from the British ex-spy’s memos. But he would have to enlist a supportive U.S. attorney for subpoena power to haul anyone before a grand jury.
If the investigation gathers steam, law-enforcement officials say, the natural venue would be New York City, where U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has agreed to remain in office after meeting with Trump. As attorney general, Sessions could put a stop to any inquiry, but that would ignite a political firestorm.
At congressional hearings last week, Comey declined to say whether the bureau was investigating the possible Russia-Trump connections, declaring it was policy not to comment on pending inquiries. That drew a pointed observation from Sen. Angus King of Maine that clearly alluded to the disclosure of the Clinton inquiry last October. “The irony of your making that statement I cannot avoid,” King said.
That irony and concern for his reputation probably would make Comey all the more determined to get to the bottom of the Trump-Russia charges. That’s why a number of Republicans, reportedly including some in the incoming administration, would like to see him go.
It would be unwise to help them.
Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.