FBI Director James Comey has been at the center at some of the hottest political controversies of the last 9 months, frustrating Democrats and Republicans. This week he may have started a new feud with Donald Trump by pouring cold water on the president's claim that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had him under surveillance during the campaign.
A source close to the matter told reporters that Comey was "incredulous" over Trump's accusations. The director reportedly reached out to staff at the Justice Department over the weekend in order to publicly knock down the allegations of government surveillance against Trump, which, if true, would be extremely damaging to bureau.
At the start of the week, the White House was pressed to comment whether Comey's rejection of the president's wiretap allegations had led Donald Trump to lose confidence in his FBI director. Press secretary Sean Spicer stated that nothing has changed in the relationship, but he rejected the reports that Comey tried to squash the president's claims, saying, "I’m not aware that that occurred. I don’t think that we’re aware that that occurred."
By Tuesday, there was still no resolution to the apparent dispute between the president and the FBI director, with Spicer informing reporters that the two had not spoken since the weekend tweet-storm.
For a law enforcement agency that is supposed to be above politics, the past year has found the FBI mired in partisan battles. The bureau put itself at the center of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server and a pre-election bombshell letter to Congress that was the stuff tabloids are made of: FBI discovers new evidence in Clinton email case! The bureau was also part of the team that went public with the intelligence report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and it is likely, but not confirmed, to be continuing an investigation covering any possible links between Trump associates and Russia.
The risk in Comey getting caught in the political fray is that the FBI will lose its independence and impartiality, former assistant director of the FBI Ron Hosko warned. "If we see people believe that the FBI is politically motivated, and this has happened over the course of the last 10 months, all we're doing is damaging one more institution of government that should be apolitical," Hosko said.
It has been reported that Comey's attempt to get the Department of Justice to publicly refute Trump's wiretap claims over the weekend was an attempt to preserve the reputation of the agency. The tweet itself implicated the FBI in an illegal action, namely, wiretapping a presidential candidate at the direction of the President of the United States. Additionally, it implied that the FBI was a political tool that the Obama administration used to go after his opponents. Or as Trump charged, "This is Nixon/Watergate."
Describing the fallout from the wiretap allegations, Hosko noted, "I think its just one more manifestation of the difficult times that Comey has faced and will face in trying to maintain, in the public's mind, their belief that the FBI is independent, that it will conduct independent thorough reviews and recommend charges when they're appropriate and walk away when they're not."
The problem is over the past nine to ten months, both political parties have benefit and suffered from the same FBI director, riding high when he appeared to take a stand that aligned with their political agenda, and cursing the partisanship of the bureau when he did not.
All the trouble started back in July when Jim Comey made a rare appearance before the press to discuss the probe into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server during her time as Secretary of State. He was going to reveal whether the investigators had discovered any unlawful transmittal or storage of classified government information.
"Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of the classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information," Comey reported. "In looking back at our investigations, into the mishandling or removal of classified information, we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts.'
The Clinton email investigation that had dominated headlines for months during the presidential campaigns was over. The results delighted Clinton's backers and infuriated her opponents. Trump took the conclusion to its extreme logical conclusion, saying Comey's statement is proof of "our rigged system" and that Clinton "will not be facing the criminal charges she deserves." But at least the public statement from the FBI director would help rile up supporters at campaign rallies into frenzied chants of "Lock her up! Lock her up!"
When he appeared before Congress, some Republicans argued that Comey had artfully used the words "extremely careless" in order to avoid charging the Democratic front-runner with gross criminal negligence in the handling of classified government information.
Veteran FBI agent James Wedick explained that Comey tread a "slippery slope" that first time he appeared before the American people and Congress to announce that there was not case against Clinton for the Justice Department prosecutors to pursue.
"I've been a support of his, but when he went out on his own and made a comment about Clinton and said that there was no case there, he basically undermined the prosecutors whose job it is to make prosecutorial decisions," Wedick stated. "That was not his job. The bureau conducts investigations."
Appearing publicly in the middle of the Clinton case in July was not the last the American people would hear from Comey. On October 28, only 11 days before the election, he stepped in politics again, this time with a letter to Congress announcing new evidence had emerged in the Clinton email investigation.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid accused the director of breaking the law, by making public an ongoing investigation late in the election season. Reid and other Democrats argued the director displayed a "disturbing double-standard" in releasing damaging information about Clinton's email investigation, while remaining silent on the probe into potential contact between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
According to Hosko, there is a clear cost of wading into politics. "Comey's job is to be apolitical, and that includes not talking about pending investigations, whether that's to Congress or to the Trump White House, and not backing a view that someone wants to hear because it supports their politics," he said.
Issuing statements directly related to one of the most contentious presidential elections in history was where the director's current troubles began. "When our world is so hyper-politicized, which it is, both of the political parties want to pull the FBI on their team for their own self interest," Hosko explained. "And that is the struggle that Jim Comey has faced and will continue to face."
In a sense, Comey broke the cardinal rule of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, stay out of politics. It certainly didn't benefit Patrick Gray, who helped destroy documents for Richard Nixon during Watergate.
"He thought he could walk the tightrope between politics and the bureau's business and not be touched by it, and as history has said, its a slippery slope," Wedick explained. "If you're going to engage in politics involving the bureau, the bureau s going to end up getting the short stick. It's just fraught with disaster."
Now Comey is again walking that tightrope between the Donald Trump's claims of government-directed espionage against him and his associates, and what is likely an ongoing investigation at the FBI of Russian influence in the election. The advice of bureau veterans as the developments move forward is to keep quiet, say nothing.
"My advice would be to just keep your mouth shut, keep your head down," Wedick advised, saying that is the best advice he gives to any FBI agents to stay out of politics. But if he has found himself in conflict with President Trump, the best advice may be to step down. "Maybe if you feel this deeply, you think Donald Trump is doing something you disagree with, whatever the reason, maybe the only issue there is you want to resign."
Comey is now in a position where the public and some members of Congress have come to expect him to disclose information, as he did in the Clinton case and as was done in Obama's declassifying the intelligence report on Russian election interference. He has already been painted with a political brush because of his undeniable role in the past year's biggest political scandals on both the Republican and Democratic side.
"He is caught up in this swirl of politics," Hosko commented. "But I think a lot of independent-minded Americans still have trust and confidence in Comey, despite the dramas of last year. I think if anybody believes he is going to bow and satiate Donald Trump or the Democrats or any particular set of views apart from the facts, they are looking at the wrong guy."