My Defense of James Comey’s October Surprise

Josh Marshall, from Talking Points Memo, has an article, on how we should understand James Comey, the former FBI director. However, Marshall seems to focus the most on why he believes Comey sent his letter to Congress last October, regarding Hillary Clinton’s emails–which basically constituted an “October Surprise,” that almost certainly hurt Clinton’s chances. Most of the reasons put Comey in a negative light–e.g., Comey wanted to protect his reputation as fair and impartial and that Comey had a real problem with Clinton setting up a private server. To be fair, Marshall also does acknowledge that Comey might have sent the letter because he assume, with justification, that more partisan FBI agents from the New York office would probably have leaked the information, if Comey didn’t–and that may be more damaging. Still, Marshall’s verdict on Comey’s decision comes down on the negative side:

One last dimension of this is that Comey was almost certainly assumed that Clinton would win. So it wasn’t just Republican attacks in the abstract. It was the very specific scenario of the Republican Congress finding out soon after Clinton’s election that Comey had ‘sat on’ possible new evidence against Clinton little more than a week before the election.

That must have been a difficult bind for Comey. But it shouldn’t have been a hard decision. Faced with choosing between what I think was unquestionably the correct and ethical decision and the one which would ward off challenges to his reputation and secondarily the FBI’s reputation, he chose the latter. Given the gravity and predictable consequences of the decision, his choice was and remains unconscionable. Whether he saw the choice in these terms or was so beholden to the myth of his own rectitude he saw it differently, I do not know.

In the article, Marshall overlooks one key issue, an issue that I think could largely justify Comey’s decision. That’s what I hope to describe in this post. While the Republicans probably would have strongly criticized Comey for “sitting on the information,” zoom out from this to look at the other likely effects. Trump almost certainly would have pointed to this as exhibit A that the election was rigged, and this would incite his followers even more. Now, consider if Clinton won–which is what Comey and almost everyone else assumed. Comey’s reputation would be the least thing that would be damaged, had he not sent the letter. Trump would not disappear from the scene–he’d likely be empowered by this, turning this incident and the election loss into turbo-charging his his narrative that the election, intelligence community, and media were rigged. Couldn’t you see him reveling in this, especially since he could probably monetize this in significant ways? (Plus, I think he’s enjoy complaining and criticizing more than actually governing the country.) The danger is that his followers would totally enraged and not see Hillary Clinton as a legitimate president. Depending on how many people felt this way, this could be really bad for the country. It would be a nightmare scenario.

Let’s go back to what Comey might be thinking. Comey’s thinking Clinton will likely win. If she does, and it’s latter revealed that Comey could have reopened the investigation, but didn’t, then he’s worried about the scenario I described above. But not only that. In recent testimony, Comey also mentioned being worried about the integrity and trust in the FBI, and this is justified in my view. Had Comey not done anything, this would have been the second, dramatic, example when it seems like the FBI director was letting Clinton off the hook. Trump supporters, and possibly independents, may now believe the FBI is highly politicized, thus eroding the trust of the American public. That would have definitely been bad.

But I suspect Comey also considered the possibility that sending the letter may have an October Surprise effect–eventually costing Clinton the election. If he was truly someone who prided himself in being apolitical (as many believe he is), then this possibility had to worry him, and if it happened, it must really bother him. (Indeed, he said that the thought that his letter affected the election makes him “slightly nauseous.”) However, speaking for myself, I actually think taking this chance was the more responsible move. What this means is that I actually think that Clinton losing–i.e., Trump winning–is preferable to the nightmare scenario I briefly describe above. I’ll try to describe this a little more in the next post.

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