Democrats' Comey Dilemma
James Comey's extended book tour isn't only rattling President Trump. It's also inducing a bit of post-traumatic stress disorder among Democrats, many of whom consider the fired FBI director the villain of the 2016 election.
Comey's near-omnipresence on the air and online to promote the release of “A Higher Loyalty” complicates, if not undermines, Democrats’ effort to capitalize on the feud between the president and the nation's former top law enforcement official.
On one hand, they are still seething over Comey's decision to issue a scathing indictment of Hillary Clinton's judgment during a July 2016 press conference to announce the FBI would be closing its investigation of the former secretary of state’s private email account and server. Their outrage increased in late October, just over a week before the election, when Comey said that the bureau was reopening the case — a decision that prompted Democrats to openly question the director's own judgment and competence at the time and for many months afterward.
Comey's admission in his book that he figured Clinton would be the next president and therefore he felt concerned about concealing a re-opened probe has incensed Democrats anew, raising more questions about the extent to which politics tainted his actions. Some Democrats have gone so far as to call Comey a "liar" and a "narcissist" looking out only for himself. Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta called his decision "one of the worst errors of judgment in post-Hoover FBI history."
Yet on the other hand, Democrats still argue that Comey could be a credible witness in the Robert Mueller investigation when it comes to whether the president obstructed justice by firing of FBI director. And some in the party see Comey's blunt questioning of the president's moral fitness to serve, and of his ability to tell the truth, as appealing to moderate voters they hope to win back in the midterms.
"It's absolutely a complicated relationship," says Josh Schwerin, who served as a spokesman for the 2016 Clinton campaign, noting the "widespread pain" felt in listening to Comey over the past few days.
"It is really important to remember that this is somebody who broke FBI protocol and regulations and ended up dramatically impacting the race, if not changing the outcome, and he needs to answer for that and needs to continue to be pressed," adds Schwerin, who is now communications director for the Priorities USA super PAC. "But at the same time -- and this is where nuanced arguments are difficult to break through -- he is a witness to obstruction [of] justice, and his testimony and his retelling of what happened is an important piece in the case against Trump."
Democratic strategist Patti Solis Doyle, who managed Clinton's 2008 campaign, argues that credibility and judgment are not mutually exclusive. "Democrats are still smarting, without question," Solis Doyle says. But, "I think you can have bad judgment and still be credible. ... I don't think there has been a time throughout this process that [Comey] has told a lie, as the president has said. His story has been extremely consistent. I don't think you can question his honesty."
In an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos that aired Sunday, Comey asserted there was "certainly some evidence of obstruction of justice" by the president, but he also noted it "would depend and -- and I'm just a witness in this case, not the investigator or prosecutor. It would depend upon other things that reflected on his intent."
When asked in an interview with NPR whether his book tour would undermine his credibility in the Mueller probe of Russian election interference, Comey referred to his extensive testimony before Congress. "I don't know whether I'll have to testify later — but if I did, the advantage of my circumstances is my testimony is locked down," he said. "I wrote memos, I wrote written testimony, and so long as I continue to tell the truth and don't start making stuff up that's inconsistent with that testimony, I don't see an issue."
But longtime Clinton friend Lanny Davis doesn't seem to consider Comey as credible. Davis told Fox News: "He's now lying on all his television interviews ... where he says he was obligated to [announce the restarting of the Clinton email probe] because he promised Congress. I call that a lie."
He continued: "I respect Comey for standing up to Donald Trump, who asked for personal loyalty -- an offense against the Constitution, in my judgment. It's the only thing I respect about Comey. Everything else is a renegade narcissist, protecting his political rear end with the Republicans because he thought Clinton was going to be elected."
In the book, Comey describes his thinking thusly: “It is entirely possible that, because I was making decisions in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president, my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restarted investigation bore greater weight than it would have if the election appeared closer or if Donald Trump were ahead in all polls. But I don’t know.”
Some Democrats have taken issue with what they see as Comey's failure to provide true clarity. "Comey used the word ‘maybe’ 37 times in the interview. 8 of them were in one answer. For a lawyer and law enforcement professional at the highest levels, it's a curious tactic, but useful when talking to press, allowing him to avoid having to be definitive about anything," wrote former Clinton communications director Nick Merrill, as part of a series of tweets questioning Comey's answers in the Stephanopoulos interview.
Such an observation raises questions about Comey's value as a witness in the Mueller probe. And others note the contrast of Comey's behavior with that of the special counsel.
"People talk a lot about Mueller and Comey being similar, but every time I hear Comey talk about the Clinton investigation, I can only think of how Mueller would've handled everything the exact opposite way," wrote Matthew Miller, former spokesman for then-Attorney General Eric Holder. "It would’ve never occurred to Mueller that he was in an ‘impossible position.’ He wouldn’t have thought about himself and his position at all. He would’ve just done his job, followed the rules, and let the chips fall where they may. As you’re supposed to."
Beyond Comey's potential role in the special counsel’s investigation, others have taken issue with the way in which the former FBI director takes potshots at the president in his book, commenting on Trump’s hand size, the length of his ties, and the orange hue to his skin. Those elements have been perceived by observers on both sides of the aisle as undercutting Comey's reputation as an even-handed public servant and undermining his claim to high moral ground.
But some Democrats argue that other parts of the book and portions of related interviews pertaining to Trump could be persuasive. "It's one thing when I criticize Donald Trump, but it's another thing when someone whose actions led to electing him is now saying he is unfit and behaves like a mob boss," says Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, who served as a spokesman for the Clinton campaign. "For people who may not have liked Hillary Clinton, Comey's criticism will be the latest data point in the public indictment of the Trump administration."
Others believe Comey's influence will be limited, and they look forward to putting the former FBI director in the rear view. "Democrats, liberals, progressives, and even independents, because of the way he infused politics in both investigations, will not see him as the moral authority," says Solis Doyle. "They already know [Trump’s] unfit to be president on moral grounds. ... They don't need to hear it from James Comey."