People who analyze politics through the lens of political parties can suffer whiplash because of the sudden changes in direction that events can take. Rather than focus on just the actions themselves and whether those are good or bad, they tend to take good and bad actions as indicative of whether the person doing is basically good or bad or, conversely, decide if things are good or bad depending on whether the person doing them is on their team.
A notable example is Donald Trump who praised WikiLeaks and Julian Assange when that organization revealed information that was damaging to the Hillary Clinton campaign and has now decided that WikiLeaks is bad when there is a danger that they may reveal information that is damaging to him. After saying during the campaign that he loved WikiLeaks, it appears that his administration is now planning to issue charges against Wikileaks and Julian Assange.
Democrats seem to be suffering similar swings when it comes to fired FBI director James Comey. They praised him when he stood up to the Bush administration in 2004, then condemned him when he made statements that were damaging to the Clinton campaign, and are now praising him again after he was been fired by Trump and is revealing things that are damaging to him, especially the memos that he was in the habit of routinely keeping of things that he felt were important.
What has alarmed the Trump camp is the memo that Comey apparently wrote after his conversation with him that directly contradicts Trump’s statements about what he said and suggests that he tried to obstruct justice. As Trevor Aaronson writes, these memo are far more significant than your run-of-the-mill bureaucratic memos and carry far more weight that one might expect.
Had this been a normal criminal investigation, and had Comey been a special agent in the field, the memo he would have written would have been known, in the FBI’s parlance, as an FD-302. The FBI does not record conversations with subjects related to criminal investigations. Instead, FBI agents, using their memory and sometimes handwritten notes, draft memos that summarize the conversations and include purportedly verbatim quotes. Federal judges and juries have consistently viewed these memos as indisputable fact. For this reason, Comey’s memo is no normal government memo. It could do lasting damage to Trump’s presidency, if not contribute to costing him the nation’s highest office altogether.
It is for this very reason, that the memos are treated as fact, that lawyers like Harvey Silvergate advise people never to talk to police or FBI officials unless they have their own lawyer present and record the conversations themselves. Otherwise, their word counts for nothing against the FBI’s word.
Aaronson takes us through Comey’s history and reminds us of some of the terrible things that he has done and that we should not lionize him now just because he is on the outs with the Trump administration.
In an effort to stop terrorist attacks before they happen, Comey expanded the practice instituted by his predecessor, Robert Mueller, to use undercover agents and informants to catch would-be attackers in sting operations. These stings never caught terrorists on the eve of their attack. Notably, the FBI twice investigated Omar Mateen, the Orlando nightclub shooter who killed 49 people and wounded 53 others while claiming allegiance to ISIS in a 911 call, but did not deem him a threat. At the same time, Comey’s FBI agents aided in the prosecution of Sami Osmakac, a Florida man caught in a sting operation, despite having called him in private conversations a “retarded fool.” They also busted penniless, mentally ill homeless men who claimed to be associating with ISIS. In one of those cases, an informant even gave a homeless man $40 so he could purchase the machete and knives he needed for his supposed plot. To catch a lonely Michigan man, the FBI used two female informants to set up a honeypot, in which the FBI informants claimed to be in love with the target so as to manipulate him. The target, in turn, claimed to have an AK-47 and to have attempted to travel to Syria. But it turned out he was just saying all that to impress the ladies.
Just days before his firing, Comey testified before Congress that one-half of all smartphone and computer devices analyzed by the FBI can’t be examined “with any technique” due to encryption. During his tenure, Comey worked aggressively to give the FBI access to encrypted devices. Notably, Comey battled in court with Apple over the tech company’s unwillingness to help unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. The FBI later paid a hacker somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million to help unlock the phone. At the time, Comey told a House committee: “There is no such thing as absolute privacy in America.”
Comey endorsed the practice of FBI undercover agents posing as members of the news media, though he called the practice “rare.”
Aronson goes on to list other deplorable things that Comey did.
We see a similar thing with the response of Democrats with deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. He was first condemned for writing the memo that called for firing Comey, then he was praised for the leak that he had threatened to resign if he was blamed for the firing decision, and now he is being hailed for appointing Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russian involvement in US elections, the issue that likely led to Trump firing Comey. This move by Rosenstein may be an effort to try and recover the good reputation that he had before he wrote the memo.
The choice of Mueller is interesting. He and Comey are supposed to be close and he went with Comey on the infamous late-night run in 2004 to the hospital bedside of then attorney general John Ashcroft to counter the Bush White House efforts to coerce Ashcroft to authorize the illegal domestic surveillance programs. As someone who was himself director of the FBI for 12 years, Mueller knows how to navigate that bureaucratic maze and will be able to figure out the paper trails and who to talk to. He is also likely to receive more cooperation from people inside the FBI than an outsider would. But at the same time, his loyalty to the FBI may prevent him from reporting on things that are unflattering to the organization. It is also not clear at the moment if Mueller’s mandate covers the broader question of Trump’s possible business dealings with Russian oligarchs and organized crime figures.
I am not sure how Trump is going to react to Rosenstein appointing any special counsel at all to investigate the Russia connection, let alone Mueller. What Trump is discovering is that it is not as easy to fire and silence people in government as it is in the private sector where you can bribe or otherwise coerce people to sign non-disclosure agreements. People in government are bureaucratic infighters who know how to skillfully wield paperwork to further their own ambitions. Comey is a good example of that.