Why Is James Comey Still Around?

James Comey epitomizes a lot of what is wrong with Washington and the elite culture of which he is a part. The question Americans ought to be asking after his recent testimony before Congress is not “What happened?” with Hillary Clinton, the election, or the Russians but “How the hell is this guy still running the FBI?” It’s a question for the president too.

Comey is a creature of Washington and the self-interested hypocritical elites that President Trump excoriated on his road to the White House. And yet there was Comey the other day, preening before Congress in his “ah shucks I’m just a big tall guy trying my darndest to do the right thing” act, balancing attacks from the left and right with a complacent disregard for any notion of what is right, other than his take at the moment on any particular issue.

Comey’s survival owes in part to some basic qualities. In many respects he is the type of guy who typically prospers in a hierarchical environment. He is tall and imposing, while being technically smart and basically competent. Comey always appears calm and has the knack to look slightly exasperated when fielding questions or criticism, as if those inquiring are barely worthy of his intellect or attention, but he deigns anyway.  In an attempt to buffer his obvious condensation he offers up that occasional “Aw shucks” moment, as when at the recent hearing he exclaimed “Golly!” to explain how he felt about the slings and arrows sent his way.

Comey is very much like his bete noir Hillary Clinton, the woman with whom he is now historically entangled -- don’t try to imagine it literally. Like Hillary Clinton, he won’t go away, can’t admit to mistakes, nor does it appear he has a good sense of self-awareness. It’s like inspector Javert investigating Torquemada, or vice-versa, it really doesn’t matter.

Hillary Clinton obsessively blames Comey for her defeat at least in part because consciously or not, she recognizes that he acted much the way she would have in a similar situation. That is, she would have lied, dissembled, and rationalized a position that she thought would bring her personal advantage, and arrogantly blow off any criticism as ignorant or in bad faith.

And as like members of the same class, Comey’s “accomplishments” are actually similar to Hillary’s. They are marked by connections, politics, legalisms, self-interest, and mediocrity. Just as Hillary nurtured a false reputation as a crusader for women’s and the underprivileged, so Comey carefully cultivated one for probity and impartiality. The centerpiece of this construct, his 11th hour intervention to stop evil White House counsel Alberto Gonzales from getting ailing then Attorney General John Ashcroft to sign off on a wiretapping order Comey deemed illegal has a kernel of truth to it, not unlike Hillary’s coming under sniper fire in Bosnia. It assumes that Ashcroft could not have refused to sign but for Comey’s hulking presence in the room. It’s a nice story, but that’s all it is.

Even Comey’s use of language mimics to some degree Hillary’s similar efforts, as when she modulates her grating harangue into an odd approximation of a southern drawl. Thus we get Comey’s “golly” comment, quite as if he fell off the turnip truck, and the even more inauthentic dyspeptic comment that he’s “mildly nauseous” over the idea that in another 11th hour act, reopening of the Clinton email investigation, might have influenced the election. Like everything Comey seems to do, it’s an attempt to have it both ways, to eat his cake and keep it too, which ought to make ordinary Americans on both sides of the aisle a bit queasy.

But Comey’s real genius is that he knows what ordinary Americans think doesn’t matter. All that matters is what his fellow elites think, and they still seem unwilling to make him pay for his myriad errors in handling the Clinton email scandal. He’s cleverly taken the position that because everybody is upset with his actions, both on the right and on the left, he must have done things correctly, like Solomon threatening to split the baby, only to tweak out the ethical center.

He knows that lawyers and politicians more than anyone are familiar with this approach, deal-making and compromise being the lifeblood of both professions. Every lawyer knows the old saw that a modest settlement is usually better than a trial, and that if both parties walk away from the negotiations unhappy, than the mediator must have done his job well.

But this is not what Comey’s really done. Unlike Solomon, metaphorically speaking, he actually split the baby that is federal law and procedure then ground it up into an unidentifiable mush, ladled equal portions to both Democrats and Republicans, and expects everybody to go “Mmmmm!” It’s enough to make a reasonable person much more than mildly nauseous.

The real question now is what does Donald Trump think about all this? One of his most puzzling moves was the decision to keep Comey on as FBI director. Not long after the FBI went through a pro forma interview of Hillary and shortly before Comey’s infamous July announcement that no “reasonable prosecutor” would bring charges in the email scandal Trump tweeted that the system was “rigged” presumably with Comey at the controls. Comey’s July announcement seemed to prove that, but now Trump seems content to keep the rigged system in place, Comey still at the controls.

Trump came into office seemingly willing to confront and put some big tough guys in their places. But upon meeting and getting to know some of them, he’s had a change of heart, for example reverting back to “one China” rhetoric after meeting with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, whom he clearly respects. That might make perfect sense on the international stage and be good policy in dealing with the world’s largest nation, but Comey works for Trump.

Does Trump actually like the guy? Does he think Comey’s actually doing a good job now after excoriating him on the campaign trail? Or is Trump, like the Washington elites among whom Comey swims so successfully, unwilling to put the big guy in his place, which means somewhere other than the FBI.  

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