WASHINGTON: Democrats and Republicans agree that James Comey is a man of integrity. But the FBI chief, in striving to live up to that reputation, now finds himself accused of interfering in the US presidential elections just days before the vote.
On Friday, Comey announced the discovery of a trove of emails with possible relevance to the FBI’s closed investigation into Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server while she was secretary state.
Comey, 55, acknowledged in a brief letter to congressional leaders that he did not know if anything of significance was in the emails, and would not until his agents had reviewed them.
In a separate message to FBI personnel, he explained that he felt “an obligation” to inform Congress “given that I testified repeatedly in recent months that our investigation was completed.”
“In the middle of an election season,” he conceded, “there is significant risk of being misunderstood.”
And misunderstood he apparently has been, on all sides.
“This is the biggest political scandal since Watergate, and it’s everybody’s deepest hope that justice at last will be beautifully delivered,” crowed Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, without knowing what the latest batch of emails contain.
The emails were reportedly found on a laptop belonging to Anthony Weiner, the disgraced congressman and estranged husband of one of Clinton’s closest aides, Huma Abedin.
“It is extraordinary that we would see something like this just 11 days out from a presidential election,” said Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta. “The director owes it to the American people to immediately provide the full details of what he is now examining.”
Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the US Senate, sent Comey a letter on Sunday, warning him that he “may have broken the law” by using his influence to favor one side over another in an election.
“Your actions in recent months have demonstrated a disturbing double standard for the treatment of sensitive information, with what appears to be a clear intent to aid one political party over another,” he said.
Former attorney general Eric Holder called it “a serious error with potentially severe implications” by a man of “integrity and honor.”
In an op-ed piece published in the Washington Post, Holder noted that the Justice Department’s policy is to not comment on ongoing investigations — or take unnecessary actions close to elections that might influence the outcome.
Reacting to Comey’s bombshell, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said he would “neither defend nor criticize” him.
Earnest said President Barack Obama — who appointed the Republican Comey in 2013 — to be “a man of integrity, a man of principle.”
But he also pointed to traditions that “limit public discussion of facts that are collected in the context” of ongoing investigations.
Sources close to Comey told the Washington Post he thought the information would be leaked to the media, with the risk that his silence would be interpreted as an attempted cover-up.
“I think Comey was in an impossible spot,” Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said Monday, citing reports that others in the FBI had known for some time about the emails.
“He was compelled to come forward and say his testimony was no longer true,” she said.
In his testimony before a Republican dominated Congress in July, Comey had pledged to keep lawmakers apprised of any new developments.