Part 5—Once again, god gets a pass: We haven't read James B. Comey's book, the lofty and deeply thoughtful "A Higher Loyalty."
In part for that reason, "reading Comey" in the colloquial sense isn't real easy for us.
He strikes us as a rather strange duck, in large part due to his obsession with hiw own moral standing. Reading Niebuhr in college was one thing. Obsessing on Niebuhr at age 57 strikes us as different and odd.
Some reviewers have shown true belief in Comey as they've reviewed his book. For many years, Comey was treated as a mainstream god—as the most upright person then living. In her review of the his book for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani seemed to read Comey that same old way. The gent was still Comey the god.
Other critics have taken a different approach, saying that Comey comes across, in his new book, as a bit of a moral exhibitionist. But in our view, it's even been frustrating to follow the work of these critics.
Basic questions have gone unasked; basic issues have gone unstudied. It's the way our mainstream press corps has long played the game.
Consider one basic criticism of Comey's behavior during the 2016 campaign, when his actions may have changed the outcome of the election. We refer to the claim that Comey broke basic Justice Department policies as he attacked Candidate Clinton, first in July 2016, then again in late October.
Is that criticism accurate? Did Comey break clear-cut, basic Department policies when he savaged Clinton?
Did Comey really do such a thing? Consider the discussion which occurred on Monday evening's Last Word.
(MSNBC has posted the wrong transcript for Monday night's show, so we can't give you a link.)
As the discussion in question began, Lawrence threw to Matt Miller, a Justice Department spokesperson under Eric Holder. Miller said that Comey "still doesn't have a good reason to explain why he did what he did" during the 2016 campaign. According to Miller, "When you see his explanations of the Clinton investigation in particular, I think a lot of them just don't really add up."
We tend to agree with that. At this point, Lawrence turned to the New York Times' David Leonhardt. In a classic contradictory statement, Leonhardt brought the eternal note of scripted blather in:
O'DONNELL (4/16/18): David Leonhardt, your reaction to what we have been listening to?Alas, poor Leonhardt! As if in thrall to an ancient law of the guild, he started by saying that Comey has been "coming across as very honest" in his initial interviews in support of his book.
LEONHARDT: I agree with that [with what Miller said]. I mean, I think, look, James Comey comes across as very honest in these interviews. He admits that his wife and his daughters attended the Women's March. Those are things that, if you were just trying to cultivate your image, you wouldn't say, but they are honest.
On the other hand, he is not persuasive about why he made a decision about Hillary Clinton. Department policy, as Matt knows better than I do, is very clear. You don't talk about active investigations that could disrupt campaigns the way he did it. And so this whole dichotomy he set up, "speak or conceal," just doesn't make any sense.
Justice Department policy is you don't go out and criticize people you are not going to charge and affect a presidential campaign in the final days. And so, I understand that he still believes he did the right thing, but I don`t think the rest of us should believe that he did the right thing in 2016.
His one example, which he pluralized, made no earthly sense. When Comey "admits" that his wife and daughters attended the Women's March, he is, in fact, helping his image among the groups who will support him now that he's locked in combat with Donald J. Trump.
This is hardly an example of a "very honest" person making an admission against interest. Sadly, though, this is the way life forms like Leonhardt play.
Leonhardt started in the traditional manner, praising Comey's honesty. At this point, the real nonsense started, with Leonhardt agreeing that Comey's statements about 2016 don't make any sense.
Along the way, Leonhardt made the claim you've heard a million times by now. In summary, this is what Leonhardt said:
Justice Department policy is very clear. You don't talk about active investigations that could disrupt a campaign in its final days. Also, you don't go out and savage people you aren't going to charge.By now, you've heard it a million times over the past two years. According to a million pundits, Justice Department policy was very clear on each of those ways, and Comey broke those policies—first in July 2016, then again late in October.
Justice Department policies were clear, and Comey broke those policies! Indeed, this is exactly what Rod Rosenstein said in his now-famous memo for Attorney General Sessions:
ROSENSTEIN (5/9/17): I cannot defend the Director's handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton's emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken. Almost everyone agrees that the Director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives.Oof! Rosenstein said it way back when. He said "almost everyone" agrees that Comey broke "longstanding" principles and policies when he launched his unauthorized attacks on Candidate Clinton starting that July.
The director was wrong to usurp the Attorney General's authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution. It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement. At most, the Director should have said the FBI had completed its investigation and presented its findings to federal prosecutors. The Director now defends his decision by asserting that he believed attorney General Loretta Lynch had a conflict. But the FBI Director is never empowered to supplant federal prosecutors and assume command of the Justice Department. There is a well-established process for other officials to step in when a conflict requires the recusal of the Attorney General. On July 5, however, the Director announced his own conclusions about the nation's most sensitive criminal investigation, without the authorization of duly appointed Justice Department leaders.
Compounding the error, the Director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation. Derogatory information sometimes is disclosed in the course of criminal investigations and prosecutions, but we never release it gratuitously. The Director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial. It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.
For perhaps the ten millionth time, Leonhardt said it again this Monday night. Comey violated "very clear" Justice Department policies, Leonhardt said, even as he that Comey "comes across as very honest" when he disputes these claims.
Now for our questions about the current treatment of Comey, who was once known as Comey the god:
Have you seen any major news organization present a serious report about this familiar claim? Have you seen any such news org establish the existence of the established policies Comey is said to have violated?
Have you seen any interviewer ask Comey if he did break clearly established policies, and if so, why he did?
We haven't seen anyone do these things. Simply put, we haven't seen the former god pushed about what he did. Comey, the once and future god, is still getting a major pass, just as he so plainly did in real time.
Understand what happened on Monday night. Leonhardt kept saying that Comey "comes across as very honest," even as he agreed with Miller's statement that Comey's explanations "just don't really add up."
Comey was getting a pass all over again as this nonsense occurred. With this, we come to the way the very honest Comey keeps throwing Loretta Lynch under the bus.
Let's give (some) credit where due! In his full, five-hour interview with Comey, George Stephanopoulos pushed Comey harder than you might have expected about his trashing of Lynch. He asked Comey many questions before he finally gave up.
How has Comey treated Lynch? Let's recall the record:
In July 2016, Loretta Lynch was James B. Comey's boss. Crazy as the statement may sound, she was his superior within the Justice Department!
As Rosenstein noted in his memo, Comey usurped his boss' authority when he launched by first attack on Candidate Clinton that month. He didn't even tell his boss that he planned to ignore Department policies in launching his surprise attack.
That's what the godlike Niebuhr reader did in July 2016. From that point on, he has repeatedly suggested that he did what he did because his superior was possibly dirty. Stephanopoulos pushed him on the extremely shaky "Russian email" part of that story, but finally gave up in despair.
Leonhardt would probably tell you that Comey "came across as very honest" as he stumbled his way through Stephanopoulos' questions. We'll only tell you this about this factually jumbled matter:
Comey's story concerning Lynch seems to have changed in the past two years. Today, he claims he never thought that Lynch was in the bag for Clinton.
He claims he never believed that stupid Russkie transmission. That doesn't seem to be what "Mr. Comey's defenders" were telling the New York Times at this time last year.
The story here is complicated, but uh-oh! People who have read Comey's book seem to say that he still seems to be sliming Lynch, if only perhaps by inference. Even a leading Comey-enabler like Rachel Maddow has now, ever so briefly, raised this point:
MADDOW (4/19/18): The thing that troubles me about that is it seems like even the way you talk about it in the book sort of casts aspersions on Loretta Lynch and whether or not she was doing anything wrong with regard to this investigation.In the summer and fall of 2016, Maddow may have been the liberal world's most important Comey-enabler. Even she has now raised this point about Comey's book, if only as a brief afterthought. In July 2016, she bowed low to the Establishment God, permitting him to run roughshod over both Clinton and Lynch.
(Maddow did the same thing in the fall of 2012 when McCain and Schieffer began the sliming of Susan Rice in the course of inventing the Benghazi narrative. Benghazi and the emails defeated Candidate Clinton. As these damaging narratives were being invented, Rachel Maddow was totally MIA each time.)
Last night, even Maddow raised the Loretta Lynch question, if only briefly at the end of her hour with Comey. That said, no one has really challenged Comey on this point, and David Leonhardt is quick say that he still "comes across as very honest," even though "this whole dichotomy he set up...just doesn't make any sense."
Comey doesn't exactly "come across" that way to us. But especially now that he's anti-Trump, the children aren't going to tell you that, and the children aren't going to push him.
As far as we know, Matt Miller had it right this past Monday night. To our ear, Comey's statements about 2016 still don't seem to make sense.
That said, that was then and this is now—and Comey is now anti-Trump. No one, least of all Maddow, is going to push him about the way he managed to get Trump elected to office.
Comey threw Lynch under the bus, where she had plenty of company. People who have read his book, even including Maddow, say it still sounds like he's sliming that woman, his boss.
Would a reader of Niebuhr do such a thing? Leading stars of the mainstream press corps won't likely try to find out.