FBI chief Comey grabs the spotlight in the 2016 US presidential race

Win McNamee, AFP | FBI chief James Comey testifies before the House Judiciary Committee in Washington, DC on September 28, 2016.

FBI Director James Comey’s shock letter to Congress on Friday announcing the discovery of new evidence that might relate to the inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s emails has earned rare praise from Donald Trump and the ire of the Clinton campaign.


Nearly a decade ago, when Comey was testifying before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, he inadvertently revealed a glimpse of his vulnerable side.

When asked to provide the details of what he described as “the most difficult night of my professional life”, Comey hesitated, bent towards the microphone and began to answer – before stopping and then restarting, with an apology for his delay.

“I’m only hesitating … because I need to explain why …,” he explained cautiously.

“Please. I give you all the time you need,” responded his interrogator, Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat and pugnacious veteran of numerous Senate hearings. This time though, Schumer was going easy on the man before the investigative committee – such was the nature of the respect Comey commanded.

It was May 15, 2007, and Comey was being questioned about his actions back in March 2004, when he played a critical role in blocking a bid by the George W. Bush administration to extend a wiretapping surveillance programme.

Comey was acting attorney general at that time since his boss, John Ashcroft, was in an intensive care unit at George Washington University Hospital after undergoing emergency gall bladder surgery.

Comey had refused to sign off on the legality of the secret programme. So Bush’s Chief of Staff Andrew Card and White House lawyer Alberto Gonzales were rushing to the hospital to get a sick Ashcroft to approve the controversial measure.

In a high-speed race to the hospital worthy of a political thriller, Comey rushed to the ailing Ashcroft’s bedside minutes before Gonzales and Card arrived, literally running up the stairs.

The hospital visit was the start of a dramatic showdown between the White House and the Justice Department that, according to Comey, was resolved only when Bush overruled Gonzales and Card. But that was not before Ashcroft, Comey and other senior FBI officials prepared a mass resignation.

The story of how Comey blocked the White House staff’s arm-twisting move was broken by the New York Times. And at the May 2007 Senate hearing, the details of that fateful night finally went on the official record.

The incident clinched Comey’s reputation as an unyieldingly principled public servant, earning him respect, admiration and even affection across the political divide.

Comey has since risen to lead the country’s top law enforcement agency. But over the past few months, he has lost the affections of not just Republicans and Democrats but arguably also of the institution he currently heads.

Disregarding the Justice Department

On Friday, October 28, just 11 days before Election Day, the FBI director dropped a bombshell when he sent a letter to Congress announcing that new evidence would be reviewed that might pertain to the Clinton email probe, an acrimonious investigation that the FBI had suspended months earlier without filing any charges.

Comey's letter to Congress

And it appears that Comey was disregarding the advice of the Justice Department, which oversees the FBI.

According to the New York Times, senior Justice Department officials “strongly discouraged” the FBI chief from revealing the details of an ongoing inquiry into an unrelated case before determining if the unexamined new evidence had any bearing on the Clinton case.

“The Justice Department strongly discouraged the step and told him that he would be breaking with longstanding policy,” the Times reported.

Comey’s letter has outraged the Clinton campaign, with the Democratic presidential candidate urging the FBI to release “all the information that it has” relating to the email probe.

The new evidence emerged as part of a separate investigation into disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Weiner is under investigation for allegations that he made sexual overtures to a 15-year-old girl.

The Clinton campaign has further suggested that Comey’s decision to send the letter may have been politically motivated because, as Clinton noted, the letter was only sent to “Republican members of the House”.

Stern reprimand, but no charges

Comey, a registered Republican for most of his life, can’t seem to please anyone these days. In July, he earned the wrath of the Republican Party when he announced that the FBI had concluded the investigation into Clinton’s emails without filing charges against the Democratic presidential candidate.

While chastising Clinton for being “extremely careless” in using a private email address and server while secretary of state, Comey noted that the FBI had found no evidence that she intentionally transmitted or willfully mishandled classified information. As a result, Comey said, “our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case”.

That judgment drew prompt condemnation from Republicans, with presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeting that it proved the system was “rigged”. His political rallies have since seen supporters chant, “Lock her up!” in response to Trump’s claims of his opponent’s “criminal and illegal conduct” – allegations he repeated over the weekend during a campaign rally in Colorado.

The impact of the Comey letter is very likely to dominate the spin cycle in the crunch days leading up to the November 8 election, placing the FBI chief firmly in the spotlight.

Locked in the bathroom by ‘the Ramsey rapist’

For the 55-year-old FBI chief, it’s been a steep rise from a childhood in Allendale, New Jersey, working his way through the New York district courts to national centre stage.

The son of a New Jersey corporate real-estate agent and a computer consultant mother, Comey made the local news – albeit inadvertently – when he was barely 17.

On an October night in 1977, Comey and his younger brother, Peter, were held at gunpoint by a notorious local criminal dubbed “the Ramsey rapist”, according to the Bergen Record newspaper. The serial criminal, who had conducted a string of robberies and raped two babysitters, had broken into the Comey home in Allendale and locked the boys in the bathroom. The two brothers managed to escape through a window only to encounter their attacker on the lawn. They then rushed back into the house, locked the door and called the police.

The incident “taught him important lessons about crime’s psychological toll on victims”, the local daily reported, contributing to his reputation as a “tough but ethical” professional.

From NY courts to Washington, DC

An exceedingly tall man, Comey stands at 6 foot, 8 inches (203 cm) and is a basketball player, like US President Barack Obama. In July 2013, when Obama announced Comey would take over as FBI director, he described Comey as a “man who stands up … very tall … for justice and the rule of law”, to chuckles from the audience on the White House lawn.

In a career that has seen him work his way up from a law clerk to the US attorney for the Southern District of New York before taking up his Washington, DC posts, Comey has worked on several landmark cases. These include the Gambino mafia family case, the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia and the prosecution of lifestyle guru Martha Stewart for securities fraud.

He’s also an old hand at investigating the Clintons. In the mid-1990s, he served as deputy special counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee investigating the investments of Bill and Hillary Clinton and their associates at the Whitewater Development Corporation. No charges were brought against the Clintons in that case.

In 2002, as federal prosecutor, Comey inherited the dossier investigating outgoing president Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich, a controversial financier whom Comey had prosecuted a decade earlier. In the end, Comey decided not to pursue the Rich pardon case.

When Comey informed Congress on July 7 of his decision not to prosecute the Democratic candidate in the email investigation, some might have thought that this was his third and final brush with a Clinton.

“My judgment was, the appropriate resolution of this case was not with a criminal prosecution,” he announced at the time. “As I said, folks can disagree about that. But I hope they know that view – not just in my opinion, but of my team – was honestly held, fairly investigated, and communicated with unusual transparency because we know folks care about it.”

Barely four months later, Comey is about to get a new lesson in just how much folks care. And if his revelation winds up influencing how the vote goes on Election Day, the “Comey letter” will take its place in the annals of American history, sparking rancour and partisan bitterness for years to come.  


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