Jim Comey’s honor and ethics are rightly debated, and rightly doubted, for his actions in the 2016 presidential campaign. Less questioned has been his savvy as a counterintelligence operative. But like so many other targets in the US, he got played by the Russians, our primary intelligence adversary, with the fate of the republic and even the Western alliance on the line. Imagine Edgar Hoover carelessly giving the Nazis the bomb. That’s Jim Comey; and the bomb has been used on us.
In the 2016 election cycle, Russian intelligence hacked into computers for both the Democratic and Republican parties, ultimately stealing e-mails from the Democratic National Committee, Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, state Republican interests, and Republican National Committee archives. The Russians leaked only the Democrats’ correspondence, though, in a transparent attempt to hurt the Democrats and help the Republicans, while presumably holding the Republican information in reserve for future manipulation (blackmail, perhaps, but also plain intelligence). The Russians correctly viewed Hillary Clinton as an adversary, and a steadfast defender of the international system and Western alliance that the Russians had long sought to undermine, and they correctly viewed Donald Trump as a stooge, willing to undermine that international order himself. The Holy Grail collusion theory of the 2016 campaign, that Trump himself or his closest advisers secretly collaborated with Russia’s attack on the Democrats, is not yet, and may never be, proven. And yet the story is still the greatest US political scandal of my life. Overt collusion is already well known. The Trump campaign used the stolen e-mails, as did House Speaker Paul Ryan and Republican House candidates; and Trump himself publicly celebrated and encouraged the hacking. And then the Republicans proceeded to win complete control of the government — presidency, Congress, and Supreme Court. Vladimir Putin has thus pulled off an astonishing feat of influence. He played a lot of Republicans, a fair number of Democrats and liberals, the mainstream and conservative media, and our own counterintelligence community in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to successfully elect the candidate of his choice.
The United States is no longer making its own destiny. Russia’s effort to manipulate the election, and its success in doing so, were deep, and appearing deeper with each new revelation. And the latest revelations show clearly the interconnected failures of Jim Comey to understand or do his job.
Widely reviled on the left has been Comey’s decision to intervene in the campaign to Clinton’s detriment, contrary to Bureau precedent and policy. He did this first by holding a press conference where, instead of merely saying that the investigation into Clinton’s e-mail server was closed without charges, he proceeded to characterize Clinton and her actions as “extremely careless”. The decision to prosecute was not his, as an investigator, but he essentially muscled the Department of Justice aside to make it his decision. The press conference opened him to Congressional hearings where he furthered the accusations, which in turn made him, supposedly, feel compelled to amend his Congressional testimony a mere fortnight before the election, when the Bureau found e-mails on the laptop of Hillary aide Huma Abedin’s husband, Anthony Weiner, which the FBI thought might include messages not yet seen or examined. This amended testimony went to a Republican committee chairman who predictably leaked it, prompting another round of irresponsible, overblown press coverage, tanking Hillary’s poll numbers, sending last-minute deciders in Trump’s direction, and probably suppressing turnout that cost Democrats up and down the ballot. Comey gave us our unified government.
To now, the explanation for the press conference from which this all sprung has been Comey’s own partisanship, the partisan zeal of his agents (particularly in New York) who, he is supposed to have feared, would rebel if he let Clinton off the hook without a slap, Comey’s additional fear of a similar reaction from Republican politicians, particularly if Clinton won (as expected), and also the supposed compromising of his boss, attorney general Loretta Lynch. This compromising had been assumed to be entirely about Lynch’s impromptu meeting with Bill Clinton in a parked airplane towards the end of the investigation; she was publicly deemed incapable of making the decision (which was hers, not Comey’s) to prosecute Hillary over the server. Lynch had already recused herself. But the Washington Post has reported that Comey was in fact also motivated by something else: an apparent DNC e-mail obtained indirectly from Russian intelligence describing Lynch’s intention to protect Hillary from the investigation.
The Post describes this as “multiple layers of hearsay”, and it isn’t kidding. One, a source, provided the FBI with a document purporting to be from, two, Russian intelligence, discussing a stolen e-mail from, three, DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, saying that she knew of a communication from, four, Loretta Lynch to Clinton staffer Amanda Renteria, promising to obstruct an investigation into Hillary Clinton. (In fact, if Renteria was the supposed source of Wasserman Schultz’s claim, that’s five.) The FBI did not have verification of this communication from Lynch or Renteria. It did not even have verification of Wasserman Schultz’s e-mail, either directly from the DNC, or from the leaked e-mails the Russians had hacked from the DNC. This was supposed to be an e-mail hacked by the Russians but not released. Why Russia would hold back on this is not explained. And it seems notable that what Lynch was supposedly promising to do was in fact obstruction of justice, because that seems like the sort of thing that would not just prompt Comey to force Lynch’s involuntary and unknowing recusal, but to investigate her directly.
It was primarily the existence of this Wasserman Shultz e-mail about Lynch that prompted Comey to assume prosecutorial authority in Lynch’s stead. And the e-mail, it turns out, was a Russian forgery, designed to sow just this kind of dissension, but probably with no hope of such phenomenal, unprecedented success.
After the Post article, the FBI soon claimed that it and Comey knew the document was fake. Comey’s decision was, in this argument, motivated not by the belief that Lynch was compromised but by the possibility that the fake e-mail would eventually be published and make her look like she was compromised. This leaves us with the new mystery of why, should the fake document become public, Comey couldn’t then say that it was fake. And it sounds suspiciously like Comey’s supposed reason for his election-eve letter on the Weiner e-mails — that he was so frightened that his insubordinate New York office would leak the discovery of the e-mails that he decided to publicize them himself.
Russia’s plan was, in part, to divide voters from Hillary Clinton and her allies. This explains the dump of DNC e-mails around the time of the Democratic convention, an act which stomped on Clinton’s moment with Bernie-delegate turmoil and protests starting on the first day and extending to her actual primetime acceptance speech. The e-mails further convinced many Bernie delegates that the nomination was rigged; in reality, Hillary beat Bernie soundly, in clean contests that her campaign and the DNC did not control. If anyone benefitted from undemocratic practices, it was Bernie Sanders, with his string of caucus-state wins. But the “rigged” narrative had taken hold among Bernie voters, and the DNC leaks helped cement it.
But the Russian plan depended ultimately on Donald Trump’s election; US presidential contests, as Comey himself has observed, are zero-sum games between the two major-party nominees. Defeating Hillary Clinton required defending Donald Trump, which is why, just hours after the first report of the sensational pussy-grabbing tape from Access Hollywood, John Podesta’s e-mails were leaked.
Private communications wouldn’t show much of anyone in a good light, so the one-sided release of e-mails, and the selective featuring of their content by the press, obviously hurt Hillary with many voters. All of this was deliberate on Russia’s part. Russia was also helped by an unrelated fact — Hillary had spent more than a year dealing with the bogus scandal over her private e-mail server. This was portrayed by Republicans and a fair amount of the press as a criminal enterprise. Most voters had no idea what the scandal was about, other than “e-mails”. So when Democratic e-mails were stolen and leaked, the real criminality was entirely against the Democrats, but every “e-mail” story was further proof, in the minds of uninformed voters, of Hillary’s supposed criminality.
Meanwhile, the rightful suspicion of criminality belonged to Trump and the Republicans. Corruption is a certainty; Trump is in violation of both emoluments clauses in the Constitution and the government lease on his Washington hotel. Trump’s foundation engaged in bribery and used outside charitable donations to aid Trump personally. The Kushner family is using Trump’s position to raise investment in China. On Russia, there is mounting evidence of collusion, including many contacts between the Russians and the Trump campaign, and a new revelation of a Republican operative working with and soliciting assistance from the hackers of the DCCC, hackers now known to be Russian intelligence. There is reason to think the Russians were expecting to have influence over members of the Trump administration, should there be one, through friendliness, quid pro quo, debts, or компромат — compromising material. Incoming National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, who had been paid and feted by the Russian state, apparently promised to undo the sanctions the Obama administration was imposing for the very interference that helped Trump and Flynn in November, and that promise is being honored. (Flynn also nixed a military operation against ISIS that Turkey objected to, and reportedly discussed kidnapping a legal US resident whom Turkey pretends is masterminding the overthrow of Tayyip Erdoğan. Flynn had also received money from the Turkish government.) And Trump überadviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner now seems to have attempted, during the transition, to establish communications with Putin’s government through Putin’s government, using secret Russian channels that, he believed, could not be monitored by the sitting US government. Since Trump had already been elected, any further collusion at that point was likely to be in service of Trump-Kushner business interests. But what did the Trump-Kushners have to offer the Russians in exchange? As business owners, nothing. As the incoming administration, quite a bit. When private corruption impacts state interests, when state favors are exchanged for personal profit, we have moved beyond mere corruption into the realm of treason.
The possibility and reality of violations of the law by Trump and his associates were largely known to the FBI before the election. They just weren’t widely known or understood by the less-informed voters. The FBI was investigating Trump associates for possible collusion with Russia, and probably the Trump Foundation for assorted corrupt practices. Bureau protocol is not to discuss a case under investigation, and not to discuss it at all if the case doesn’t lead to indictment, so as not to implicate the innocent. The Bureau somehow managed to follow protocol when the suspects were fellow Republicans. With Hillary, the New York FBI office (it is always New York) flogged the ‘Clinton cash’ story to the New York Times. Shortly before the election, the New York office persuaded the Times to run a credulous story dismissing the very real conclusion that Russia was specifically helping Trump. While Comey had earlier in the campaign been interested in publicizing Russian interference (nixed by Obama for fear that it would look partisan), he eventually helped stymie, along with Mitch McConnell, a disclosure of the Trump-Russia connection. And to repeat the main point, all of Comey’s detrimental actions against Hillary with regard to her e-mail server ultimately depended on the existence of a bogus e-mail, which he may or may not have suspected was bogus, but certainly should have.
Of all the parties who got played by the Russians, the Republicans — voters and officials alike — probably got played the least, since many of them got something they wanted, in exchange for their souls. This is often framed, preposterously, as having Trump to sign the Republicans’ bills out of Congress, or to nominate the likes of Neil Gorsuch. But the Republicans could get the same effect from Mike Pence. They don’t need to put up with Trump’s incompetence, corruption, and pro-tyranny policies to get tax cuts and Obamacare repeal signed. Trump’s value to the Republicans is his electoral magic. No Republican knows for sure how it worked, and whether he can duplicate it to elect more of them in 2018 and 2020, or use it against them in primaries. But in fact, Trump was elected by a perfect storm, a series of converging events and actions that allowed him, while losing the popular vote by three million, to assemble a win in the Electoral College by less than eighty thousand voters over three states. And one key element of that storm is now gone, fired by Trump himself. Trump initially, and laughably, pretended to have fired Comey for his actions towards Hillary Clinton, actions Trump celebrated at the time. In fact, Trump corruptly fired Comey for doing the job he should have been doing all along — investigating how a foreign dictatorship managed to take control of our democracy.
With Trump’s election, Vladimir Putin becomes the spiritual and temporal head of the present world order, to last at least as long as Trump remains in office. Anyone looking for a knave in a tableau that includes Donald Trump will naturally think first of Trump. But Trump is only in that tableau because Putin found other dupes, and foremost among them, Jim Comey.