Before there was the firing, there was the hearing. This column is about the hearing held on May 3rd during which F.B.I. Director James Comey met with the Senate Judiciary Committee. The hearing was part of the annual oversight hearing of the F.B.I. although most of the discussion dealt with the Director's handling of two specific investigations. More specifically, the discussion centered on the differences in the Director's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation and his handling, quite differently, of the ongoing investigation into the current administration's involvement with Russia during the presidential campaign to influence the outcome of the election. Apparently the part about the Russia investigation was enough to frighten the administration into firing Director Comey less than a week later.
Director Comey made it clear that it is quite unusual for the any member of the F.B.I. to comment during an ongoing investigation. It is also unusual to comment at great lengths on a concluded investigation. It is also against policy to comment on a presidential candidate close to an election.
Why then, as Ranking Member Diane Feinstein inquired, was Comey compelled to announce eleven days before a presidential election that the Clinton email investigation was to be reopened? Director Comey's response did not sit well with the Democrats on the committee to say the least.
Director Comey admitted that he did anguish over his decision to announce the reopening of the Clinton email investigation based on some newly discovered emails that could prove to have relevance to the original investigation that had been closed the previous July. That investigation concluded that there was no basis for prosecution. It also included Comey's now somewhat infamous harangue about Mrs. Clinton's “carelessness” in dealing with classified documents. Finding that her actions did not rise to the level justifying prosecution and then trying her in the court of public opinions certainly contributed to Democrats questioning motive.
First, Director Comey made it clear that there is a major difference between the handling of ongoing investigations as compared to investigations that have been concluded. That is his primary justification for discussing the Clinton investigation as compared to the investigation of Trump associates and the Russian involvement in our presidential election. That explanation, however, just does not seem to be satisfactory.
Director Comey explained quite passionately and believably that, although he was quite aware that his decision to send a letter eleven days before an election notifying Congress of the reopening of the investigation on Mrs. Clinton's emails would likely have an impact on the outcome of the election, not to do so, he was convinced, would be tantamount to concealing information from Congress. As it turned out, the newly found emails were found to have had absolutely no impact on the findings of the original investigation that had been closed in July.
The question, then, as was raised by several Democrats on the committee, was why the investigation could not have begun prior to the sending of the letter. If the investigation preceded the sending of the letter to Congress, then whether or not there was any game-changing information in the new batch of emails could have been determined and the associated impact of the letter to Congress on the election could have been avoided. As was pointed out during the questioning, this is no different than asking for a search warrant prior to discussing what was found during the search.
His response was that he did not believe there would be enough time prior to the election to complete the work even though that is exactly what happened.
Director Comey did admit that his particular handling of the Clinton investigation was dictated by its “compelling public interest.” Yet, he has chosen not to divulge any information regarding the Trump/Russia investigation even though the issues surrounding the Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election carries with it as much “compelling public interest” as any issue in the last several years if not decades, maybe since Watergate.
As indicated earlier, Director Comey did decline answering any questions dealing directly with the ongoing investigation into the administration's ties to the Russian influence on our election including the hacking into the Democratic National Committee's server. However, as is often the case, the questions asked could sometimes have more significance than the missing answer. Specifically, the need for a special independent prosecutor to fully investigate this issue was raised and the fact that a special prosecutor, unlike the F.B.I., is in position to bring charges is a significant justification for having a special prosecutor.
Another issue that was raised without a corresponding response dealt with the need for the investigation to subpoena tax returns to provide a fuller picture of the money flow and its associated influence on the players involved. If this investigation leads to the disclosure of Donald J. Trump's tax returns this country will finally be in position to know, as former President Richard Nixon so eloquently stated it, “...whether your president is a crook.”