American politics was thrown into a tizzy Friday afternoon by an enigmatic letter sent by FBI Director James Comey to members of Congress informing them that unspecified new information had come to light that was relevant to the seemingly dormant probe into possible mishandling of classified information related to Hillary Clinton’s email server.
Since Comey’s letter was released, a cascade of credible but unverifiable leaks to veteran FBI and Justice Department reporters disclosed a variety of things the new information allegedly isn’t and then one big leak about what it is. Back in late September, the US Attorney’s Office in New York seized former Congress member Anthony Weiner’s cellphone as part of an investigation into his alleged sexting of an underage girl. Weiner, of course, is the estranged husband of Huma Abedin. Abedin, in turn, was deputy chief of staff in the State Department when Clinton was secretary and running the email server and now serves as vice chair of Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Beyond that, we don’t know anything. And in fact, we don’t even have any official confirmation of the Weiner connection. And even though I’m sure Comey has no desire to see himself or the FBI get dragged deeper into the partisan muck, the reality is that having the final weeks of an election season focus on a series of unverified leaks from unknown FBI officials isn’t workable. Having set off this whole cascade with his letter, Comey owes it to the country to explain in more detail what’s going on.
Comey’s difficult choice
The whole email saga has, from start to finish, put Comey in a difficult position.
In the ordinary course of events, the way a criminal investigation works is that first you investigate, and then if you decide to prosecute, you file charges and produce your evidence. If you decide there’s no case, you just wrap things up.
When Comey wrapped up the FBI’s investigation into the email matter, he chose to break with precedent and offer some extended color commentary on his personal opinion of Clinton’s conduct. It was, in the endlessly quoted phrase, “extremely reckless.”
This would be considered a fairly flagrant form of misconduct in almost any other situation, but given the inevitable partisan conflagration, making sure the GOP got some good talking points out of the investigation was the best way to preserve the FBI’s institutional stature. And even though some Democrats professed to be outraged by Comey’s break with precedent, the reality is that simply ending the inquiry with no statement wouldn’t have been credible or viable.
But having waded into the campaign in this way, Comey inevitably found himself testifying before Congress and thus declaring under oath that he was done looking at this matter. Consequently, when some kind of relevant information popped up on Weiner’s phone, he was now in a position of needing to contradict something he’d already told Congress.
He needed to do something, and the enigmatic letter is what he chose to do.
We need to know more
In an alternate universe in which the FBI is an utterly leak-proof institution, “say the legally required minimum and nothing else” might have been a viable strategy.
But the reality is that it isn’t. Public discourse immediately began to fill with what amounts to rumor and speculation. The Weiner link has been reported widely enough without official contradiction that I feel comfortable assuming it’s true, but the truth is we don’t know that it’s true.
Having waded this far into this, Comey owes us a clearer account of what’s going on. Is it true the new information comes from Weiner’s phone? Why did the FBI decide to pivot the Weiner investigation in this direction in the first place? What, exactly, is the bureau investigating? How long is it expected to take? This is not the kind of information the FBI normally reveals about an ongoing investigation. But the FBI director also doesn’t normally slag people with negative commentary in press conferences nominally dedicated to announcing their exoneration. Comey is not a partisan hack, but he’s also not a political naif.
Forced into a difficult situation, he chose to wade outside normal practice because he understood the political stakes. New events have forced him further down that path, and now he needs to wade even further. It’s easy to see why Comey felt he couldn’t simply wait 12 days and inform Congress after the election. But having intervened in the electoral endgame, he can’t play dumb and just walk away from the bomb he threw. The practical alternative to him saying more is the investigation being conducted by anonymous sources and unverified leaks, as the FBI has already proven incapable of genuinely saying nothing about this matter. We need to know what’s going on, and he ought to tell us, clearly and on the record.