The two career law enforcement officials deciding whether Hillary Clinton is prosecuted for using private email servers as secretary of state are both former U.S. attorneys in New York City.
FBI Director James Comey headed the Southern District in Manhattan, considered the nation’s premier federal prosecutors office, for just under two years. The Republican left the post for a top job at the Justice Department under President George W. Bush in 2003. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch headed the Eastern District in Brooklyn, which covers Long Island, for five years before President Barack Obama nominated her to the cabinet post in 2014.
There probably aren’t two more straight shooters and respected prosecutors in the nation. But on Tuesday morning, only one could attempt to reassure public confidence in the impartial administration of justice.
Comey’s statement at the start of his news conference was startling and unprecedented. "I have not coordinated or reviewed this statement in any way with the Department of Justice or any other part of the government. They do not know what I am about to say.”
And the optics of doing it just as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Obama were to head to their first joint campaign appearance, speaks to Comey’s determination to protect his department from allegations of political interference in his decision not to recommend charges.
Normally, a decision that could influence the outcome of a presidential campaign would have been formally announced by the Justice Department, if not the attorney general herself. But there is nothing usual about the email probe.
Amid a presidential campaign and allegations of whether Clinton broke the law, Comey reportedly had decided to make a public statement once the investigation was concluded.
After Lynch disqualified herself from the case, Comey had little choice but to make it as full, and harsh, an explanation as possible. Bill Clinton fatally compromised Lynch from rendering a final decision after he made the astoundingly stupid move of meeting privately with Lynch on her plane at an Arizona airport last week. And she suffered unmeasurable damage, at least for the moment, for taking part in that conversation.
Justice Department career prosecutors still have to decide whether to accept Comey’s recommendation, but there is little doubt that it will.
Comey who has taken on both Bush and Obama over the years, has tried always to protect the institutions and above all the process. He was protecting his territory and his reputation. Ground that he might already be staking out. Under the post-Watergate reforms, the FBI director has a 10-year term and Comey’s lasts until 2023.
No doubt, his decision will be criticized. But Comey delivered his judgment in an in-your-face, New York-smackdown way that may have ended the legal probe but deftly transferred most of the political heat to the Clintons.
This originally appeared in The Point, the editorial board’s daily newsletter about New York politics. Click here to subscribe.