We are just at the beginning of the story of the extraordinary firing of FBI Director James Comey late Tuesday afternoon.
The ostensible cause for his firing by the president was his handling of the Hillary Clinton email scandal last July, not the investigation into allegations of “collusion” between the Trump campaign and the government of Russia.
As Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote in his memo recommending that Comey be fired, the FBI director “was wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that [the Clinton email case] be closed without prosecution. It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement.”
Anyone who was politically engaged in the 2016 election remembers Comey’s performance that day. After giving a detailed account of Clinton’s serial violations of U.S. national security protocols by transmitting classified information through her unsecured private email server at the State Department, Comey then discussed the fact that prosecutors, not the FBI, make decisions on whether or not to prosecute such cases.
He could have left it there, and said he was transmitting the FBI investigation to federal prosecutors so they could make the decision whether or not to prosecute.
Instead, Comey decided to cross the line, concluding — clearly beyond his reach — “that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.”
Comey was criticized at the time for that statement. Today, it came back to haunt him, with a vengeance.
Rosenstein’s memo focused on Comey’s public exposure of what the FBI normally keeps quiet, and he cited multiple former top Justice Department officials, from Democratic and Republican administrations, who agreed with his conclusion that Comey had departed from long-standing DOJ tradition.
But Comey’s firing also comes just days after another round of pathetic congressional testimony, in which Comey said he was “mildly nauseous” by what he felt was an obligation to intervene in the U.S. presidential election, and where his testimony has already been corrected by the FBI because of a substantial inaccuracy in his description of the Huma Abedin/Anthony Weiner laptop.
Let’s be clear: We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg on this story. It will take some time for all the facts to emerge.
Comey earned his 2013 nomination to head the FBI by Barack Obama on an afternoon in 2004, when he was serving as acting attorney general.
His boss at the time, Attorney General John Ashcroft, was in the hospital recovering from gall bladder surgery in March 2004 when the AG’s office was apprised of a certification notice he was required to sign to reauthorize a key National Security Agency program in the war on terror.
The NSA program involved warrantless wiretapping of terrorist targets in the United States, and Comey didn’t like it. He was credited by the left-wing media for years of single-handedly having killed the NSA program, and with causing Congress to delete key portions of the USA Patriot Act, which had initially authorized it.
Comey has always had a Boy Scout aura about him. And while Americans might feel comfortable with a Mr. Goodie-Two-Shoes in charge of the nation’s top law enforcement agency, Comey’s recent performance shows the limits of a simplistic Boy Scout view of the world when dealing with complex affairs of state.
The Boy Scout in Comey wanted to respond immediately — and impulsively — to what his instincts told him was wrong.
The public servant in him should have put the Boy Scout on pause.
That is what Rod Rosenstein recommended to his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And that is what Sessions ultimately recommended to the president.
We need Boy Scouts in government. We need officials who speak out when they perceive that an injustice has been committed. And they need to be protected from retribution.
But we also need to have adults in charge, who know the difference between a perceived injustice and the slow workings of government.
The real question raised by Comey’s firing is whether Justice Department prosecutors are finally getting ready to pick up the Clinton email investigation where the FBI left off last year and make a determination on whether to prosecute Hillary Clinton and her associates, based on the evidence FBI investigators so ably gathered.
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EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in The Hill.