For months, the White House has insistently whined that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is persecuting the president.
Echoed by right-wing propaganda media, that theme is now amplified in Donald Trump’s tweeted blasts at former FBI director James Comey, whom he vilifies as a “liar and leaker.”
To anyone who remembers the final days of the presidential election, Trump’s paranoid claims have always seemed ludicrous. If the bureau appeared to be tilted, it was firmly in his direction, especially in its handling of the criminal investigations of him and Hillary Clinton.
Now Comey’s media tour promoting his new book, “A Higher Loyalty,” offers an opportunity to debunk such mythologizing — and to ask a few unanswered questions about the bureau’s perverse role in that election.
In his book and media appearances, the former director tries to justify his denunciation of Clinton’s management of her emails in July 2016 when he declined to recommend prosecution — and his stunning revelation, less than two weeks before Election Day, that the bureau was examining emails on a laptop owned by her aide, Huma Abedin.
Comey insists those fateful choices reflected his moral instincts. But they also appear to have arisen from internal political dissension and thinly veiled threats of negative leaking about the Clinton probe.
Openly voicing such threats, on Fox News and other media outlets, were former prosecutor and mayor Rudolph Giuliani and James Kallstrom, a former head of the New York FBI office.
Both men repeatedly claimed to be in contact with FBI agents furious over the decision not to prosecute the Democratic nominee — if true, a blatant violation of Justice Department rules and traditions.
As a Trump campaign surrogate, Giuliani said he had spoken with FBI agents who were “embarrassed” by Comey’s decision not to prosecute Clinton. Going further, Kallstrom warned that those agents were “not going to take this sitting down.”
Appearing on Fox in late September, Kallstrom said that the agents working on the Clinton case “feel like they were stabbed in the back,” and added, “I think we’re going to see a lot more of the facts come out in the course of the next few months. That’s my prediction.”
On Oct. 26, just two days before Comey informed Congress about the Abedin emails, Giuliani hinted on Fox that Trump “has got a surprise or two that you’re going to hear about in the next few days… We’ve got a couple of things up our sleeve that should turn this thing around.”
Which “couple of things” did Giuliani mean, exactly?
Meanwhile the grave details of the FBI counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russian connections, opened in July 2016, remained secret from the public.
The only apparent leak about that probe appeared in a New York Times article the week before Election Day, under a headline that minimized its seriousness: “Investigating Donald Trump, FBI Sees No Clear Link To Russia.”
That was an actual cover-up, with shattering consequences.
The blatant political pressure from within the FBI to discredit Clinton disturbed Democrats for months after the election. Among them was Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a former FBI special agent himself, who inquired about that sore subject when Comey made his final appearance as FBI director before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“During your investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, a number of surrogates like Rudy Giuliani claimed to have a pipeline to the FBI. … He even said that he had — insinuated that he had advanced warning about the (Abedin) emails described in your October letter. Former FBI agent Jim Kallstrom made similar claims. Now either they’re lying, or there’s a serious problem within the bureau.”
Comey told Leahy he was investigating those troubling circumstances.
“I don’t know yet. But if I find out that people were leaking information about our investigations, whether it’s to reporters or to private parties, there will be severe consequences.”
Nothing came of that promise, made not long before Trump fired him. But the questions remain:
Did Comey ever investigate leaks from within the bureau to Giuliani and Kallstrom? What did he learn about their contacts and activities?
Did he take any action when he heard their televised claims that agents were discussing the investigation with them? Does he know who leaked the stories about the Abedin emails and the Clinton Foundation?
And does he know whether FBI Director Christopher Wray or the inspector general of the Justice Department are examining these breaches of conduct?
He’s doing a lot of interviews. Someone should ask him.
— Joe Conason is editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JoeConason, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.