In war between candidates, even FBI director is a target

New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — In July, after FBI Director James B. Comey declined to bring charges against Hillary Clinton for her handling of classified emails, leading Democrats hailed his leadership.

“This is a great man,” said Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader. “We are very privileged in our country to have him be the director of the FBI.” No one, added Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader, “can question the integrity” of Comey.

But on Friday, after Comey revealed that the FBI would review newly discovered emails potentially related to the case, Democrats changed their tune.

Reid all but accused him of criminality, writing to Comey, “You may have broken the law.”

Comey, who was once so broadly admired that the Senate confirmed his appointment in 2013 by a vote of 93-1, has emerged as the most vivid example of how difficult it is for institutions to remain insulated from partisan combat in this hyperpolarized era.

FILE — James Comey, the director of the FBI, testifies in front of the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 7, 2016. Just before Comey announced new evidence in the Hillary Clinton email scandal, he had been strongly discouraged by the Justice Department, for fear that he would be seen as meddling in the election. (Al Drago/The New York Times)

Clinton and her opponent, Donald Trump, who has made incendiary statements against Comey, are practicing the politics of total war, where there can be no noncombatants or neutral actors. Supporters have to be rallied, and adversaries must be distinguished from allies.

“Everything now gets weaponized,” said David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama. In their response to Comey, he said, “he Clinton people saw a strong rebuttal against him as a way of galvanizing their own forces.”

Eroding faith: That Clinton would make the FBI director a target of her campaign’s wrath is deeply troubling to some Republicans, including those who are no admirers of Trump and believe that she is compounding what they see as the Republican candidate’s irresponsible behavior.

Even more worrisome, they say, is that the attacks are eroding what little faith the public still has in government.

“What we’re seeing in this election, with Trump saying the election and everything else is rigged and now this attack by Hillary and her people on the FBI, is basically an attack on our form of a constitutional government,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. “They’re undermining the core elements of what gives our government credibility.”

William S. Cohen, who was a secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, said the hostile tone suggested that the country was “slouching toward the mutual assured destruction of our political system.”

Justice Department seeks quick warrant to review emails

“A healthy skepticism of public officials and institutions is descending into a corrosive cynicism that’s unlikely to be reversed in the short term,” Cohen said. “A coarsening of language is a precursor to the coarsening of values.”

Axelrod said Hillary Clinton had a “legitimate” criticism of Comey, and her advisers felt they had no choice but to exert pressure on the FBI director to reframe a potentially damaging narrative. In the minds of Clinton’s aides, Comey made himself fair game when he issued a vague three-paragraph letter and inserted himself and his agency into the final days of a high-stakes contest.

“By taking this highly unusual, unprecedented action this close to the election, he put himself in the middle of the campaign,” said Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communications director. The campaign’s advisers also felt they had to act, she added, because they believed that Trump would distort the letter.

Opportunity: Yet the evolution of Democrats’ handling of Comey’s letter illustrates just how tempting, and rewarding, total-war politics can be.

When Clinton first addressed the inquiry on Friday evening, hours after news of Comey’s letter emerged, she was firm but also careful to avoid anything that could be seen as a personal criticism of the director. “It’s imperative that the bureau explain this issue and question, whatever it is, without any delay,” she told reporters in Iowa.

On Saturday, though, Clinton saw an opportunity. When she referred to “the FBI director,” the Democratic audience responded with a chorus of boos for an official who was appointed by Obama.

“It’s pretty strange to put something like that out with such little information right before an election,” Clinton told supporters in Daytona Beach, Florida, winning applause. “In fact, it’s not just strange; it’s unprecedented, and it is deeply troubling.”

FILE — James Comey, the FBI director, is sworn in to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 7, 2016. Many voters are puzzling over what to make of a case involving Hillary Clinton’s email server, a disgraced congressman, and a dispute among top law enforcement officials. (Al Drago/The New York Times)

Similar emails to donors targeting Comey were soon sent.

And by Sunday, Clinton’s top surrogates felt comfortable going even further, seeing that their supporters were roused by the eleventh-hour story. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Clinton’s running mate, said at a campaign stop in Michigan, “It has kind of revved up some enthusiasm — a little bit of righteous indignation and righteous anger.”

John D. Podesta, her campaign chairman, when asked on CNN about how WikiLeaks had obtained his hacked emails, used the opportunity to ridicule the FBI director.

“Maybe Jim Comey, if he thinks it’s important, will come out and let us know in the next nine days,” Podesta said.

Later that day, Reid all but accused Comey of violating the Hatch Act, which bars government officials from engaging in any activity that can influence elections.

“Through your partisan actions, you may have broken the law,” Reid, D-Nev., wrote in a letter to Comey.

What started as a request for additional information had escalated into claims of criminality in less than 48 hours.

'Straight guy': Such accusations are unfamiliar territory for Comey, a Republican. The political left and center hailed him when, as deputy attorney general to President George W. Bush, he staged a made-for-Hollywood intervention at the hospital bed of Attorney General John Ashcroft to prevent other administration officials from making Ashcroft approve aspects of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program.

And Comey was, of course, respected enough across party lines to be tapped by Obama.

“I’ve found him to be a straight guy,” Vice President Joe Biden said Friday shortly after the letter was disclosed.

Comey remained silent over the weekend, perhaps not wanting to add accelerant to the raging political fires. But by doing so, and by not disclosing further information about what new material his agents may have discovered, he has only fueled speculation.

“It is a shame how contentious everything now is, this state of our public discourse,” said Donald B. Ayer, a deputy attorney general under President George Bush. “But he broke the most fundamental rule as a prosecutor: You either put up or shut up.”

By deciding to effectively declare war on Comey — first for not bringing charges against Clinton and then for showing renewed interest in the case — the two candidates have made him, and perhaps the bureau he leads, pay a price. After all, Comey may soon work for one of them.

“One more institution gets dragged into this partisan morass,” Axelrod said. “In the short term, it’s two candidates trying to win an election, but in the long term someone has to govern, and it becomes more difficult when everything is seen as an extension of politics.”