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James Comey and FBI damaged trust in nation’s justice system

In July 2016, then-FBI Director James Comey testifies

In July 2016, then-FBI Director James Comey testifies before the House Oversight Committee to discuss Hillary Clinton's email investigation. Credit: AP / J. Scott Applewhite

The scathing review by the Justice Department’s inspector general of the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation is more wood for the nation’s intense political fires.

It’s important to pause and take a clear look at the detailed findings released Thursday to get a full understanding of how we got to such a precarious spot. Disastrous decisions were made in an almost tragic effort to assure the public that justice was being administered impartially. The inspector general report should be a reassurance that it was.

At the start, the report critically noted that the decision not to prosecute Clinton was the correct one based solely on the law. And it concluded there was no evidence of political bias.

There is little doubt that former FBI Director James Comey made serious errors in judgment in his handling of the Clinton email probe, decisions tainted by the arrogance that he alone could navigate an extraordinary confluence of events that backdropped the tumultuous 2016 election. The report concludes that his unusual July news conference, when he said there would be no criminal charges but nonetheless went on to harshly criticize Clinton, was against policy. His decision to keep top Justice Department officials in the dark that he was making a public statement was an act of insubordination.

Then just days before the election, Comey’s bombshell announcement that the investigation would be reopened because of emails found months before on the laptop of former Congressman Anthony Weiner caused a dramatic drop in Clinton’s poll numbers.

At the time, there was a drumbeat of Republican criticism of Clinton, and Donald Trump was charging that she should be locked up. Comey said that’s why he went public — because “unusual transparency was . . . necessary for an unprecedented situation,” and that his action “was the best chance we had of having the American people have confidence that the justice system works.” He was so convinced that Clinton would win, he said, it would have been damaging for the FBI to close the case after the election because it would have undermined her presidency.

Well, that backfired. Democrats are still furious over Comey’s behavior and his failure to disclose the concurrent investigation of Russian meddling in the election on behalf of Trump. The White House already has said the watchdog’s report confirmed the president’s “suspicions” about Comey and the “political bias” among some FBI agents.

One of those agents is former top official Peter Strzok, who made key decisions on the Clinton case while also looking into possible involvement of Trump’s campaign with Russians. Asked by an FBI lawyer with whom he was having an affair whether Trump would win, he replied, “No, no he won’t. We’ll stop it.” That’s outrageous, and its political implications could be enormous if it further undermines public confidence in the FBI and, by extension, special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian meddling. There is no reason it should.

The internal review makes specific recommendations about procedures and protocol that now would bar the next FBI director and attorney general from repeating what happened during the 2016 campaign. All we can do is learn from the mistakes. — The editorial board