Comey’s Situational Ethics Make Common Sense

All of us strive for perfection; none of us achieve it. But some come closer than others and James Comey seems to be one who has those special characteristics that make a human being about as good as it gets. His June 8, 2017 testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee demonstrated his many strengths. The key may be the way in which he skillfully applied situational ethics to complicated issues.

No longer hamstrung with the constraints of still holding public office, Comey was able to give reason to his seemingly unfathomable public engagement with the Hillary Clinton e-mail issues.

Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) asked Comey, “Let me go back if I can very briefly to the decision to publicly go out with your results on the email. Was your decision influenced by the attorney general’s tarmac meeting with the former president, Bill Clinton?”

COMEY: Yes. In an ultimately conclusive way, that was the thing that capped it for me, that I had to do something separately to protect the credibility of the investigation, which meant both the FBI and the justice department.

Probably the only other consideration that I guess I can talk about in open setting is that at one point the attorney general had directed me not to call it an investigation, but instead to call it a “matter,” which confused me and concerned me. But that was one of the bricks in the load that led me to conclude I have to step away from the (Justice) Department if we’re to close this case credibly.

This is the first time that I have heard that former Attorney-General Loretta Lynch may have been applying pressure to Comey to downplay the FBI investigation of the e-mails. I think that I mistakenly assumed that Bill Clinton crossed the Phoenix tarmac to try to influence Lynch and she could find no polite way to ask him to leave. Whether that meeting influenced her or not, it became clear to Comey that the AG’s office would inaccurately downgrade the investigation by calling it a “matter” rather than the investigation that it actually was.

Some might say that the Director of the FBI has no business pre-empting the Attorney-General. It is true that that the FBI gathers information for Justice Department and standard protocol is for a spokesperson for the Justice Department to announce decisions on prosecutions. But Comey was concerned that Lynch had a political motivation to not prosecute Clinton. Comey preferred that a non-prosecution be the result of insufficient evidence rather than political preference. The way he announced the non-prosecution on July 5, 2016 seemed awkward, because it was. But he wanted the decision to close the case (at least before Anthony Weiner’s laptop), to be one based on the same standards as other decisions to not prosecute cases.

It obviously hurt Hillary Clinton that Comey made the announcement rather than Attorney-General Lynch. But it seems that Lynch forfeited the right to make that call. It probably would have been good if Bill Clinton had never crossed the tarmac, but wittingly or unwittingly, Lynch gave the Clintons what they wanted. Comey felt that he had to do what he did not want to do, influence the election.

Comey’s honesty also came through when he said that he used non-legalize language to describe his concerns about Donald Trump. “I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it important to document. That combination of things I had never experienced before, but had led me to believe I got to write it down and write it down in a very detailed way.” In Comey’s mind, the situation required him to do what he had not done for two previous presidents – write contemporaneous memos to document the meetings.

Throughout his testimony, Comey referred to common sense. That is not a legal term, but it is a human term. He rose above the restraints of his office to utilize good judgment. That is a rare occurrence in Washington and must be fully appreciated.

Comey also repeated acknowledged that he “might be wrong” about recollections or even decisions that he made. That humility makes him an approachable human being with whom others can engage in non-threatening conversation.

In the past, when Comey has confused us, it was because he was never free to give full explanations. One June 8 he did. Not only did he acquit himself well, but he also made a good case for the logic of situational ethics.