The storyteller in me is always interested in what goes on in other people’s heads. There are various cliches about how every villain is a hero in their own story, and I generally think that’s true — both in fiction, and in real life.
And as more and more information comes out about the whole Russia-Trump-Comey-Hillary-Email-Clusterfuck, I think it’s important for us all to remember that these are actual human beings, who, like all of us, are often forced to make decisions with limited time and with even more limited information, and that sometimes, they get it wrong.
(Except for Trump, obviously; he’s little more than a spoiled chaos demonbaby in the middle of his greatest tantrum yet.)
So instead of arguing about conspiracies and fake news and hypocritical firings or whatever petty satisfaction the Internet is feeding on right now, put yourself in Comey’s shoes, circa June 2016.
You’re a registered Republican who has always taken pride in your commitment to the Constitution. You’ve never been ashamed to tell leaders of either major party to go screw themselves, if their actions or words don’t align with what you see as your duty. As far as you’re concerned, inspiring a bi-partisan hatred is generally a good thing, because it makes it easier for you to stay objective in your job. You earn respect through hatred and truth.
This is how you inspire loyalty within the Bureau — but lately, that loyalty has come under question. There are a lot of eager FBI agents championing the Trump train, which is bad for objectivity; you’re also in the middle of investigating the other major presidential candidate, which is even worse for objectivity. (Also, you yourself have never been a big of Secretary Clinton, but you’re trying really hard to get past that.)
And yet, the more you dig into Hillary’s emails, the more the answer stays the same: she’s a 68-year-old woman who doesn’t understand technology, but there’s no proof of malicious intent. Regardless of how much you want to punish her, being shady and stupid is not illegal.
Then the Russia shit REALLY hits the fan.
You’re pretty confident that Michael Flynn is up to something. You know that Trump’s campaign manager is knee-deep in questionable dealings, and that Trump’s lawyers have concerning Russian ties, too. Plus there’s that Russian mob hideout sitting right in Trump Tower you’ve been watching for a while, and maybe, just maybe, there’s something going on with Rosneftand the Russian oil industry—just a few of the reasons why you’ve been casually spying on Trump-related things for years.
You’re also damn sure that DNC-server-hacker Guccifer 2.0 is Russian, though you’re having a hard time figuring out whether he’s acting alone or on behalf of the FSB and/or Russian government. (although you also know that Russian espionage tactics are intentionally designed to be duplicitous and cast layers of aspersions back around upon themselves in order to leave everyone triple- and quadruple-guessing themselves. Questionable links is what the Russians do, and they’re really really good at it.)
That’s when you learn that Russia is intentionally spreading false propaganda about Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s involvement in the Clinton email investigation — which is nearing its conclusion.
And for which you still really don’t have any proof of malicious intent, which would probably be needed (though not 100% required, I guess) to prosecute.
Even though you also know that a good 1/3 of the country is clamoring for Clinton’s public lynching, with their torches and pitchforks ready to go.
To make matters worse, Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch just got caught canoodling on an airport runway.
People are already asking questions about this — and they don’t even know yet that you know that the Russians were spreading Fake News about Loretta Lynch’s collusion in the email investigation anyway.
Damn those Russian spies are good. And you, James Comey? You’re fucked. The Russian propaganda game just forced you into a Catch-22. You have to make a choice, but your choices—and available information—are painfully limited. Meanwhile, the clock is still ticking…
Choice #1: Tell the American public, in the middle of one of the most hostile elections in US history, that Russia has meddled in the process.
You can try to explain that you’re still looking into it and that it may or may not have something to do with Trump’s business dealings, or else maybe just people on his campaign team, you’re not sure yet. But the damage would already be done. This would undermine all remaining public faith in the American Democratic process—and you yourself would be to blame. The anti-Clinton animosity would reach a fever pitch, especially when they found out that you were going to recommend against her prosecution for completely unrelated reasons.
From there, the conspiracy theories of Obama’s secret evil Deep State agenda would spiral even further out of control. Between the religious Right (who really love the Russians) and the recent resurgence of militant white supremacist groups infiltrating law enforcement, this would likely push the country on the edge of a second Civil War.
So much for that carefully-cultivated image of objectivity!
Choice #2: Publicly announce the end of the Clinton investigation—with a lengthy preamble caveat to make it clear how much you hate her—while continuing to investigate Russian interference in secret.
People will accuse you of Clintonian collusion, of course, but sometimes you have to take one for the team. Clinton supporters will breath a sigh of relief, while the rabid Clinton-hating conspiracy theorists will continue being rabid Clinton-hating conspiracy theorists. But at least this way you can keep the illusion of American democracy intact, and let the people believe they’re living in a fair and neutral electoral process in a totally free country full of equal opportunity for all.
This is the least worst option. So you take it, and hope for the best.
Unfortunately, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and your decision leads straight down.
Because just before Election Day, you receive news that your agents have found another stash of missing Clinton emails. Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit.
This looks bad. You know this looks bad. Again, you also know that you have a lot of Trumpers in the Bureau, and that if you don’t do anything, they’re going to leak the information anyway. You could wait until you’ve actually gone through this new trove of evidence before making an announcement about it, but that could look really bad—especially if Clinton wins the election, which is looking more and more likely every day.
But your duty is to the public, and to the Constitution, so you bite the bullet and decide to write a letter about this recent discovery. A letter which pretty much decides the fate of the election…even though it turned out there was nothing new to investigate after all.
But it all works out in the end, Trump gets elected, you casually mention the Russia thing in public, and everyone lives happily ever after. … Right?
Except for the other 20 members of the Trump cabinet who have lied under oath about Russian communications. Except for the alleged Donald Trump pee tape (which is almost certainly untrue, but still hilarious, none of which discounts the other revelations in that dossier). Except for all that Trump emolument stuff which may-or-may-not tie back to that whole Rosneft thing. Et cetera, et cetera.
Either way, you’re still James Comey, and you’re still doing your job as FBI Director, still investigating Russia’s involvement in the whole election process, and still under the impression that you are acting in the best interests of the American people, because that’s your job. So you don’t even mind it when Trump tries to nudge you into dropping the investigation. Or, again, when he throws a giant public tantrum about “Obama” spying on him, when you know—as well as the rest of the intelligence community—that you are literally spying on everyone in America at any given point in time, just to be safe, and that the rules on unmasking incidental surveillance have always been kinda-wishy-washy. (Except in this case, that system is working exactly as it was intended to all along.)
You don’t bother squealing on Trump for trying to obstruct your investigation because it wasn’t really that bad, and would cause an even bigger headache to report to the Department of Justice, making an even bigger enemy out of the vengeful, unhinged bully the White House.
Then he fires you. He doesn’t directly interfere with the process of justice, of course; but you know that he meant to send a message, because you know that he’s a wildly vindictive man with a malicious sense of loyalty.
But at least now the gloves are off.
To be clear: none of this is meant to excuse Comey’s actions, or anything else the professional liars in the intelligence community have recently said or done.
I’ve always viewed the intelligence community as kind of a necessary evil, who tend to do a lot of explicitly bad things for supposedly-good reasons. This is also true of law enforcement—and the FBI fits right in the center of that Venn diagram, and their history has always been shady.
The only point I hope to make is that no matter how conniving, insidious, or righteous they might seem, even high-ranking government officials are still generally people, and susceptible to the same failings as the rest of us.
(Again, except for Demon-Baby-Trump itself.)
There’s a reason that we have an FBI, of course. Just as there’s a reason for the checks-and-balances of the three government branches, and also an independent press, as well as laws to protect whistleblowers that we repeatedly ignore because we don’t think people deserve to know the truth. But the end of the day, we tend to forget that all of these organizations are run by actual human people who are prone to unconscious biases and errors in judgement. And that’s a serious problem.
The Trumpservative media would have you believe that every single member of the DNC and “Mainstream Media” are working directly together, in collusion with Comey, to take down the Trump administration with completely made-up lies about Russia. But all they can do about it is to mock anyone who isn’t anti-anti-Trump rather than grappling with the very real, and very human complications of this entire issue.
Meanwhile, a large swath of the Left is suddenly head-over-heels about shady government bureaucracy and surveillance, which is, erm, not a good look. (Remember, kids: the FBI and CIA are literally paid to lie to you.)
But like a lot of things in this messed up, crazy world, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, in an endless sea of complicated nuance.
James Comey is not “The Hero of the Resistance.” Nor is he the enemy of freedom.
More likely, James Comey is a human being whose former job involved some things that were good, and some things that were bad, and who found himself faced with some difficult decisions that made it even harder for him to stay objective in an increasingly partisan world.
Comey made some bad decisions. The alternatives were even worse.
If you were in the same situation, you probably would have made the same decisions, too. That doesn’t make it right, and doesn’t make it wrong—but it does make it human.