Exactly one year after his firing, former FBI director James Comey continues to involve himself in the ongoing inquiry about Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election. As Comey continues to promote his book A Higher Loyalty, the Brennan Center’s Michael German – who served as an FBI agent from 1988 through 2004 – looks at the past year and what might come next for Comey, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the overall investigation.
What’s happened in the 12 months since Comey’s firing?
Michael German: Robert Mueller was appointed Special Counsel because of or at least in the wake of the Comey firing, and allegations of obstruction are now the centerpiece of the broader inquiry into the president and alleged Russian influence on his election. In the past 12 months, the time it usually takes to just set up an office and get started, Mueller has secured indictments or guilty pleas for nearly 20 individuals and companies, including former Trump campaign staff, a former national security adviser, and 13 Russian nationals. That’s pretty tidy work.
Meanwhile for Comey personally, he managed to get a publishing deal and get a book on the bestseller list. He’s on a whirlwind national tour of interviews. And it’s all likely driving the prosecutors in Mueller’s office completely insane. Comey is an important witness in a potential obstruction case against the President, and his comments provide fodder for defense attorneys and Trump-supporting pundits. You don’t have to read the whole book or listen to every speech to understand that Comey has serious criticisms of the president who fired him. Of course, that doesn’t negate Trump’s own public statements tying his firing of Comey to the Russia investigation, but Comey’s comments don’t help Mueller’s team.
Why is that?
MG: President Trump would want to present Comey as an unreliable and biased FBI director who could no longer serve in the role as an objective chief law enforcement officer. So anything Comey says or does that indicates he did have animus toward the president or perceived him as a criminal would tend to support the view that his firing might’ve been justified for reasons besides delaying or impeding the Russia probe.
If Trump hadn’t fired Comey a year ago, would the Russia investigation be playing out differently?
MG: What we have to recognize is that the Mueller investigation didn’t start from nothing. The Justice Department had been investigating and the FBI had been investigating at least since July 2016. It’s impossible from our vantage to know whether the installation of a special counsel might have actually delayed what would have been earlier indictments, or whether the focus and intensity of having a special counsel has now sped things up.
What’s clear is that FBI agents investigating all this brought it to a certain point when Mueller came in. If he gets fired, they’ll continue that investigation to its logical conclusion.
How has Comey’s publicity campaign and now this book perhaps rehabilitated his image?
MG: I don’t think the book has helped Comey. For those who wanted to put a halo on him, they’ll still support him no matter what. And for those who hate him, they’ll hate him no matter what. But I think for the vast middle, his explanations for why he was publicly critical of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server yet kept silent about the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign just doesn’t ring true. I think he ultimately has a lot to answer for when it comes to his conduct as FBI director.
There’s an inspector general’s report that’s coming out soon about all this.
MG: DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz is tasked with investigating the Department of Justice, which includes the FBI, and its conduct during the Clinton investigation. That inquiry has already cost one high-level official [former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe] his job and is clearly moving apace. I imagine the whole report will come out in the next few months. And there are indications that it will be critical of Comey, because he appears to have violated longstanding Justice and FBI regulations about divulging information about investigations that didn’t result in indictments.
It’s possible they rushed his book to publication because they knew the IG report would likely be critical, and it’s harder for Comey to present himself as an ethical leader if there’s a critical report that points to any serious violations.
More broadly, how does the Comey story and the Russia investigation reflect on American intelligence?
MG: Look, the FBI and the rest of the intelligence community’s number one job is to protect the nation from hostile foreign threats, and the idea that a known hostile nation could come in years in advance of an election and potentially influence the way we select our highest official is shocking and has to go down as one of the biggest intelligence failures in American history. And that implicates both Comey and even Mueller.
MG: Well Comey was FBI director during the election, and Mueller was director while [former Trump campaign chief] Paul Manafort and others are alleged to have committed major white-collar crimes that went uninvestigated. At the time, maybe the feeling was: what’s the big deal about a few Americans getting rich catering to Russian oligarchs? The big deal of course is that now you have a bunch of high-level political operatives who have issues with the Russian government that could be exploited.
The U.S. intelligence community is so focused on counter-terror that they’re not seeing these other threats. The important thing now is to gather the evidence and hope that Robert Mueller acts quickly. Then the American public can get what they need to make better decisions about the proper functioning of the government.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.