Nursing Election Grievances, Hillary Clinton Supporters Curse Comey

Consider: The hedging answers masking as precision (“I don’t remember consciously thinking Clinton would win” but “the environment“ of expectation that Clinton would win “may have” affected his actions) The “Lordy, I hope….” touches of common-man speak (Trump is just “making stuff up.”) The rousing stump speech (which by the Town Hall I’d heard in two other interviews) on the decline of “ethical leadership” and his faith in the next generation. The ostentatious humility alongside the moral high-mindedness: He wrote the book because it “would be cowardly” not to. Come on.

I should pause now and say that I’ve been trying to figure out James Comey for a long time, and it’s only since reading his book and watching his interviews that I’ve realized just what a politician he is. This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe his accounts of his meetings with Trump — for contemporaneous memos have corroborated them. And not for a moment do I believe that he was fired for any actions that I criticize in this piece. He was fired because he refused to pledge loyalty to the King, go soft on Flynn, and dispel the “cloud” of the Russia investigation.

But this isn’t a children’s fairy-tale, and good and bad aren’t housed in mutually exclusive boxes. I don’t consider Comey an evil man; nor do I consider him a paragon of integrity. I don’t think he “lies” (in the way, say, that Trump lies); but I don’t think he is entirely honest either, with himself or with us. I don’t buy the tidy formula that almost all reviewers and pundits have arrived at: “honest man of integrity BUT lacking good judgment at times.” The formula is a handy way of placing trust in his account of his meetings with Trump, while retaining criticism of his decisions re. Clinton. And It’s understandable that right now, Comey’s truthfulness about his meetings with Trump is what we most want to see verified.

But Comey’s concern in his book and interviews goes way beyond establishing the veracity of his account of meetings with Trump. Obsessively invested in his own integrity, he wants to convince us that the truth is always his “highest loyalty.” To that end, he takes great pains to establish himself as what literary critics call a “reliable narrator.” He can be disarmingly candid, for example, as he describes youthful lies and bullying behavior, anecdotes which elicit our trust. But there’s always the payoff, as he emphasizes the life lessons he took away from them, lessons which made him the “ethical leader” he is today. He seems, on the face of it, to be engaged in continual, earnest self-reflection. But the conclusions are always self-justifying. Ask why he didn’t consider disclosing the Russia/Trump investigation until the election was over (while announcing a new trove of Clinton emails 11 days before) and his tortured parsing of differentiating details is just as lawyerly — and far less believable — than Bill Clinton’s equivocation on what constitutes “sexual relations.” With Clinton, at least, the hetero-normative view that only intercourse constitutes “sexual relations” was held by many people. Comey’s shape shifting justifications about “open” and “closed” investigations, “reveal” or “conceal” options, what does and what doesn’t constitute an “overriding public interest” seem to have been constructed with a special Comey dictionary in hand.

You can tell when Comey is being most forthcoming in his book when his smaller-minded, nastier side is showing. In contrast to some critics, who have felt the snipes at Trump (orange face, white half-moon under eyes, hand-size, etc.) undermine the author’s credibility, I found the chapter on Trump to be the best-written, most vivid, most credible in the book, in no small part because it’s the least careful, the least concerned (ironically) to be seen as honest. In otherwise pretty pedestrian writing, the Trump chapter has a novelist’s attention to character and color — and Comey doesn’t hide his own shock and recoil from how utterly inappropriate Trump’s behavior is. The details that prissy journalists have found so unsettling to their sensibilities are what makes the reader believe Comey, precisely because his human animus is leaking out.

In contrast, the rest of the book is careful to project “honesty and integrity” at all costs (even at the expense of full disclosure) and to closet any emotional “bias.” Particularly when it comes to Hillary Clinton, Comey is so concerned with being seen as scrupulously thoughtful and “objective” that in a recent interview with Jake Tapper he refused to answer whether he thinks the nation would be better off with Clinton than Trump. “I can’t answer that question,” Comey said to Tapper, “That hypothetical is too hard to go back in time to try to answer.”

This answer left Tapper with his mouth hanging open. Comey has said that it makes him “slightly nauseous” to think he had a hand in electing Trump. Yet he is unable to credit Hillary as the likelier better president, even when asked simply for an opinion? He’s no longer director ofthe FBI; no longer required to be circumspect. He certainly doesn’t hold back when asked about Trump! So why the hesitancy to give Clinton an inch? Some might answer “misogyny” and “sexism.” Perhaps. But I don’t think you need to go there. The more indisputable explanation is that the man is simply unable to admit he made a mistake.

This failure is particularly ironic — but it’s also telling — that in the preface to the book he describes the unwillingness to admit when one has made a mistake as the sign of a “dangerous” rather than “ethical” leader. He writes: “Those leaders who never think they are wrong, who never question their judgments or perspectives, are a danger to the organizations and people they lead. In some case, they are a danger to the nation and the world.”

He might well be describing himself. Not once in the book does he seriously question his judgment or motives in his handling of the Clinton case, not once (despite his “nausea” and pull-no-punches criticisms of Trump) does he express regret over the decision that possibly handing Trump the election. In fact, he has said that even if he knew Trump’s election would be the result, he’d still make that disastrous pre-election announcement. And he defends himself with tortured justifications that had Ari Melber shaking his head in disbelief, and that, while not exactly lies, are as far from convincing as his direct, piercing strikes against Trump ring true.

So let’s dispense with this honest/poor judgment dichotomy. Comey is indeed honest when it enhances rather than harms his chosen presentation of himself. And we have no reason to question his account of his meetings with Donald Trump. But he is also not the “ethical leader” that he says he wishes to “model” in the book for people in ethically troubled times.

2. “Lady Justice wears a blindfold”…. except when she doesn’t.

“Lady justice wears a blindfold,” Comey writes in the book, and “The FBI represents the blindfolded Lady Justice and has to do the right thing outside the world of politics.” But it’s difficult to find a single decision Comey made during the election that was “outside the world of politics.” First case in point: Comey’s protocol-breaking announcement about Clinton’s “carelessness.” Like many Clinton supporters, I was furious, but baffled as to his motives. We later found out, however, that in “stepping away from Loretta Lynch” and making public his own “thinking,” Comey had considered the potential effect of public perceptions (what the pundits today call “optics”), both of Loretta Lynch’s June 27 meeting with Bill Clinton “on the tarmac” and the possible future leakage of some unverified and probably fake news about Lynch. Comey acknowledges that he himself didn’t take either of these seriously. Yet fearing the “corrosive effect” of cable news reporting, he factored “optics” into his decision.

Comey’s July 5 announcement left many people with the impression of a mixed verdict (which it was not; Clinton was cleared) and gave the GOP a heap of red meat to throw into the media circus surrounding the election. The GOP, however, wanted better than that — they wanted Clinton indicted — and hauled Comey into Congress to question him further. In the course of this hearing, Comey not only defended clearing Clinton of criminal activity, but in a stunning exchange that got virtually no media attention, revealed that his assessment of Clinton’s handling of emails as “extremely careless” was entirely unfounded. This was disclosed when Comey, under rigorous questioning by Elijah Cummings and Matt Cartwright, admitted that none of the three (out of 30,000) emails that Comey had previously said were classified had in fact been correctly marked as classified.

Comey admits Hillary Clinton acted “reasonably”

I thought this admission was a bombshell. Earlier, Comey had claimed these emails contained “subject matter” that “any reasonable person should have known… had no place in an unclassified system.” Now, he was acknowledging that in the absence of the required heading, it was entirely “reasonable” for Clinton to assume they were not classified. Over and over, in his book and interviews, the word “truth” appears like a talisman to ward off the degradation that he sees in the current administration. Well, here was a truth that was long in coming: Clinton had neither lied nor been extremely sloppy in dealing with classified material.

I waited for the press conference in which Comey would apologize for his inaccurate assessment in that July 5 announcement. But he remained silent, while the media incessantly hammered away at Clinton’s “carelessness” and “lies” about her emails. They either hadn’t been paying close attention to the hearings, or didn’t want to bring closure to their favorite Clinton narrative.

The most famous occasion when Lord Justice removed his blindfold occurred on October 28, when — ignoring the Justice Department’s guidelines barring the release of information about individuals running for office in close proximity (within 60 days) to an election — Comey sent a letter to Congress saying that “in connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation.” These emails, discovered on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, former congressman and husband of Clinton’s aide and confident Huma Abedin, needed to be reviewed to “determine whether they contained classified information, as well as to assess their importance to the investigation.”

Comey’s decision to “update” congress (and from there, of course, the public) on the discovery was a great gift to Trump — a gift known to be coming by Trump cronies beforehand. “I think[Trump’s] got a surprise or two that you’re going to hear about in the next few days…a couple of things that should turn this around,” Giuliani told Fox the day before Comey’s letter to Congress surfaced; he also couldn’t resist bragging that he had insider knowledge of “a kind of revolution going on inside the FBI” springing from tensions between those who supported Comey’s legal exoneration of Clinton and those who were out for more blood from her. Comey, in contrast, represents the FBI as a smooth-operating machine of fact-finding with everyone more or less on the same page. He doesn’t mention any political divisions within the FBI, let along the fierce Clinton-haters using the discredited Clinton Cash as a “road map” for investigating the Clinton Foundation. Was Comey trying to appease this contingent in his first announcement by tempering his exoneration of Clinton with a severe (and inappropriate) chastising? Did pressure from them play any role in his decision to make public the “re-opening” of the Email investigation? Comey emphatically denies internal FBI pressure of any kind, but does admit to worry over the perception that “the Justice Department was in cahoots with the Clinton campaign.” Was it just cable news and voters’ perceptions he was concerned about, or also that of the Trump supporters within the FBI? Either way, “justice” was far from blindfolded.

Comey describes the decision to “reveal” or “conceal” the “hugely significant” news of the laptop emails as one that tormented him. He knew that either way, he’d be making enemies. Ultimately, however, he decided it was his responsibility to “take the hit.” (The chapter on the July 5th announcement is called “Roadkill”; Comey means himself, “knocked down by traffic from both sides.” Poor guy.) He describes himself as having had only two choices — “conceal” until after the election (when it would have proved “catastrophic” for the Justice Department should Clinton have been elected and the emails turned out to be problematic) or “reveal” (which was “very bad” but would at least leave the reputation of the Justice Department intact.) He went with “very bad” — at least in part because he “assumed, as nearly everyone did” that Clinton would win. He doesn’t admit to consciously factoring in this assumption, but he offers the caveat that “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.” “It is entirely possible.” “making decisions in an environment” Any locution that puts the weight squarely on Comey is carefully avoided. As to concern for Clinton’s “legitimacy,” that strains credulity. And, in any case, there always was a third choice: just follow the guidelines about avoiding action in the run-up to an election (which Comey now waves away as a “norm” rather than a rule)

Despite the “reveal/conceal” justification, I believe that Comey is more aware of the problematic nature of his email decisions than he lets on. My evidence is his many attempts to justify the asymmetry between his disclosures about the status of Clinton’s email investigation and his withholding of information about the Trump/Russia investigation. The latter had begun the very same month that Comey castigated Clinton at length for “carelessness”; however, it was not announced until March 2017, and then only in the barest of bones. No names were given, not even the vaguest of details provided. Explaining this asymmetry, Comey provides an over-abundance of justifications, none of which are convincing: (1) In July, the Clinton case was closed, while the Trump/Russia investigation was “ongoing”; thus, rambling on about Clinton was allowable, if unusual — while disclosing Trump/Russia, in the absence of an “overriding public interest” would have been highly irregular; (2) In July, the FBI was only examining a “very small group of people” in connection with the Russia investigation, none of which was Trump, and it would thus have been grotesquely unfair to him to bring the Russia investigation out in the open. (3) In October, when the Clinton case was “re-opened,” there “was no good reason for the FBI to speak about the Russians and the election. Americans already knew what was happening, so the FBI could reasonably avoid action.”

At the risk of this piece becoming an interrogation of every Comey explanation for his actions, let me make three brief comments about each of these. (1) If “ongoing” cases are not to be commented on in detail, then why did the re-opening of the email investigation in October include details about who sent the emails (Huma Abedin) and where they were found (Anthony Weiner’s laptop.) These were just the kind of “naming names” and circumstances that Comey refused to deliver to Congress in March concerning the Trump/Russia investigation. (2) The “small group of people,” while not including Trump, were all associated with the Trump campaign. Why was it not “in the public interest” for us to know this while the emails on Weiner’s laptop were of such “huge significance” that they had to be revealed 11 days before the election? (3) This business of taking into account what Comey believed Americans knew or did not know[1] is another instance, like the optics concerning Loretta Lynch, of highly interpretive calculation overtaking the bland, protective neutrality of rules. In this instance it’s also rather bizarre, as Comey gives exactly the opposite justification for why the FBI began to talk publicly about the investigation into Clinton’s email usage. They did so, he says, because the Clinton’s email troubles were already all over the news.

3. “Nursing Grievances” or A Higher Loyalty?

Since the book came out, there have been some excellent critical pieces, and Ari Melber did a brilliant job of deconstructing Comey’s justifications for the decisions that many experts now agree may well have been crucial, perhaps decisive, factors in turning the White House over to Trump. But in general, the response to Comey’s book has been respectful to a fault, while criticisms have been scorned as “nursing election grievances” and backward-looking attempts to “re-litigate the election” in “interviews, Twitter posts, television appearances, and private grumblings.” Other Democrats have warned us that we are risking “undermining Mr. Comey’s credibility and handing Republicans — and Mr. Trump himself — more ammunition.” We are told that we are fixated, need to “move on,” should look ahead to 2018 and 2020, etc. etc.

I don’t see it that way. I doubt that Mr. Mueller is going to factor criticisms of Comey’s handling of decisions affecting the 2016 election into his assessment of whether or not Trump was obstructing justice when he fired Comey — for entirely different reasons. I also don’t see “looking forward” and examining what has already happened as mutually exclusive. In fact, I don’t think we can move forward effectively unless and until we understand the past.

It’s curious, too, that attempts to “re-litigate the election” (itself a misapplication of a legal term that suggests analysis and argument are equivalent to serving a summons to court) only seem to be a problem when Hillary-supporters or Hillary herself raise issues. Bernie Sanders wrote a book “looking backward” over what happened and nobody accused him of “nursing grievances.” Comey’s book, too, is an examination of past events. And unlike Clinton, whose election memoir was constantly (and inaccurately) accused of “not taking responsibility for her mistakes,” Comey really does have a problem admitting and apologizing for his errors. No one is telling him to shut up and take up knitting

I was looking forward to Comey’s book because I’ve long found the man mysterious and his actions mystifying. I fantasized how healing it would be for him to own up to his role in the disaster of 2016, and his obvious intelligence, surprising warmth and sense of humor, on display once he came out of his own “woods,” led me to believe that it wasn’t completely far-fetched to imagine it would happen.

It’s sorely disappointing that it didn’t happen. And I will continue, in whatever way allowed me, to protest the fact that it didn’t, and to tell the truth as I see it. I have plenty of grievances about the election of 2016, but I’m not “nursing” them — I’m trying to serve them through skepticism, reason, information, and analysis. I have a “higher loyalty” too, and it only seems to be about the past. In fact, it’s to the future — to our preparedness for upcoming elections, to the preservation of fact over “optics” and “narrative,” and to the way we tell the story of what happened when it becomes a history lesson for future generations.

Susan Bordo is the author of The Destruction of Hillary Clinton: Untangling the Political Forces, Media Culture, and Assault on Fact that Decided the 2016 Election, now available in paperback with a new Afterword.

[1] In fact, as I recall, most Americans were largely unaware of what was happening with the Russians, despite Hillary’s warnings.

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Nursing Election Grievances, Hillary Clinton Supporters Curse Comey


Nursing Election Grievances, Hillary Clinton Supporters Curse Comey

Nursing Election Grievances, Hillary Clinton Supporters Curse Comey


Nursing Election Grievances, Hillary Clinton Supporters Curse Comey