James Comey’s “Oh shit” Moment

comey-wolfHaving worked with high school students for the past 45 years, there are a couple of descriptors of life that involve the word “shit.” Some call it Murphy’s Law, but to students, the appellation “Shit happens” seems to have more resonance. And how better to describe the moment when then dog ate your homework than as an “Oh shit” moment.

A lot of progressives and even some Republicans are disturbed by FBI director James Comey’s letter last Friday to leaders of Congress stating that the Bureau was going to further investigate e-mails from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The reason is that they were found in an unrelated investigation.

Why did Comey send this letter at this time? After all, his one-time boss and former Attorney General Eric Holder had established a rule that investigations of political figures should not be announced within sixty days of an election, unless the circumstances were extremely unusual. The problem with Comey’s call last Friday was that he told the public just enough to say that he was further investigating e-mails, but he gave no indication of whether urgency or serious matters of national security were involved.

An even greater question is why Comey sent his letter without first running it by Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Standard protocol is for the FBI to investigate possible wrong-doing and then to recommend to the Justice Department whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant judicial review, or possibly even prosecution. The attorney-general is the director’s boss, something that J. Edgar Hoover did not recognize in his day but which subsequent directors have. What would give cause to Comey to move ahead as if he was a prosecutor without running the flag up the pole for Attorney General Lynch to see?

One explanation is that because the investigation involved Hillary Clinton, and because several months ago her husband, former President Bill Clinton, somehow positioned himself on the Attorney General’s airplane at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, perhaps Comey thought that Lynch had been compromised and could not be impartial in this investigation.

There may well have been substance to this line of thinking, but there is protocol for what to do next when such a development occurs. Rather than free-lancing it, the Director of the F.B.I. could have taken his information to top aides of Lynch who had not had personal contact with Bill Clinton. [Comey was an assistant Attorney-General in the George W. Bush administration]. They could have decided what to do next. Instead of following proper channels, Comey pulled an end run around the Justice Department and went directly to Congress.

There may indeed be circumstances in which government officials should not work within proper channels. The morality of what to do when in messy situations is never easy. But in this case, Comey was taking action without a “wing-man.” He was flying solo and the only person who could explain what he was doing was himself.

That is where it gets particularly sticky. The Director of the F.B.I. is not supposed to talk to the press about on-going investigations. So what we have here is a classic “Catch-22” situation. The Director chose to not follow established procedure and instead to take unilateral action. Perhaps it’s warranted. But how can anyone know when the Director is not allowed to, and has chosen not to, speak about the situation. In essence, the nation is being held hostage for reasons only known to the Director.

I do hope that this is an “Oh shit” moment for Director Comey. I hope that he is wishing that he had a “do-over.” From a global perspective, nothing short of the future of the United States is at stake. From a personal perspective, Comey is a man with what seemed to be an impeccable record who seems to have tarnished himself inaptly.

Perhaps if he just said, “Oh shit,” we would all understand.