Today, the most famous (or infamous, depending on your politics) FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover did his job. Director James Comey revealed a bombshell — and he also probably made a few more enemies.
While testifying before Congress, Comey outlined the FBI’s ongoing counterintelligence investigation of Russian disinformation and political subversion in the 2016 campaign, making clear that it included looking into contacts and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Until Monday, this investigation was alleged but not confirmed. But what made this a bombshell was that not only did Comey imply that associates of the Trump campaign were likely the subjects of an investigation, but that he also stated he was not in a position to estimate how long this investigation might take. Comey took — and defended — the responsible position not to prejudge an investigation.
To be credible, any FBI investigation must be allowed to run its course without any high-level interference. And Comey’s words to Congress left no doubt that for the foreseeable future, the 2016 Russia matter will be hanging over the Trump administration. It is now officially a presidential scandal, though whether the investigation will result in charges of any kind is impossible to predict.
As expected, since this fact was well telegraphed by the bipartisan leadership of the congressional intelligence committees, Comey said there was “no evidence” at the FBI or anywhere in the Justice Department to back up the President’s tweets about the wiretapping of Trump Tower. That is federal code for “the tweets were nonsense.” The wiretaps, if any existed, would have been placed by the FBI, so Comey would know. And Adm. Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency (the other main center of federal electronic surveillance) also testified alongside Comey. He agreed the tweets were unsubstantiated by anything his agency had.
Efforts by some Republicans on the committee to create some daylight between Comey and Rogers on the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia disliked Hillary Clinton and preferred a Trump victory failed. Both men reiterated that the intelligence community stood behind the assessment it gave President Obama that the Russians not only attempted to undermine the American public’s confidence in their democracy, but also to hurt Clinton and help Trump.
Similarly, Rep. Peter King, R-New York, failed in his efforts to pressure Comey into endorsing former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s statement that for the moment, the investigation had not turned up any hard evidence of collusion between the Trump camp and the Russian Federation. Although Comey warned us that his inability to comment should not suggest tacit agreement, the fact that he could not go as far as Clapper highlighted the danger that an ongoing investigation poses for the Trump administration. It only reiterates the possibility of a huge scandal while not denying it.
In hyperpartisan Washington, it seems the best way to make enemies is to try to be nonpartisan. Democrats will never forgive Comey for his handling of the Clinton email matter, forgetting that he helped their candidate by breaking precedent and announcing last summer that there was no likelihood of indictment. Meanwhile Republicans who disliked him for the summer statement, then embraced him after he reopened the Clinton email investigation after the appearance of the Anthony Weiner emails, are now likely grinding their teeth.
Comey, who was asked to comment on his understanding of Watergate, which he readily described as “a cycle of criminal conduct,” has a sense of history. He knows that Hoover tainted the FBI as an institution by engaging in political espionage when it suited his White House bosses and even when it didn’t.
In answering the question about the Trump tweets alleging wiretapping, he stressed that presidents — namely Obama — can no longer order surveillance. In Hoover’s day, they could and did. For those hopeful that federal institutions will stand up to presidential bullying, Comey’s (and Rogers’) testimony Monday, wherever the Russia investigation ultimately goes, was a very encouraging sign.