When FBI Director James B. Comey on Friday hurled a political bombshell about new emails that may (or may not) be relevant to the closed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private server, he changed the focus of the presidential campaign in the closing days.
His action represents a dreadful mistake that does not serve the American public or the best interest of his agency. It may set a bad precedent for involvement of the FBI in a political campaign. Whatever Mr. Comey intended, the result has been to inflict damage on the role and reputation of the FBI.
▪ His disclosure violates longstanding policy and puts the FBI in the unenviable position of being an active player in an election. The Department of Justice and its various divisions have a well-founded practice of not commenting on existing ongoing investigations. They don’t even acknowledge them — for good reason: To maintain public trust in the ability of the department to avoid political influence. To ensure a fair investigation. And, above all, to prevent investigations from unfairly or unintentionally casting public suspicion on public officials who have done nothing wrong.
▪ That leads us to the next point: Mr. Comey’s 166-word statement was virtually content-free. It contained nothing of substance that materially changes what we already know. Yet it casts suspicion on Ms. Clinton and her campaign even though Mr. Comey admits they may have done nothing wrong. Despite the eagerness of some Republicans to suggest otherwise, the investigation has not been reopened.
▪ Mr. Comey says he acted in the interests of transparency. That’s puzzling. Rather than reassuring anyone or providing substantial new information, Mr. Comey opened a new set of questions 11 days before an election yet conceded he can’t answer them. How is that transparent? Or fair, for that matter?
▪ Mr. Comey says he was motivated by a promise he made to Congress to keep its members informed about the investigation. Yet in a letter to employees explaining his actions, he added: “I also think it would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record.” This is a totally different justification that creates a significantly distinct standard for FBI investigation of public figures around election time. Is this going to be the new rule going forward: Always tell the public when a public figure running for office is under investigation? Or, even more vaguely, when information that may — or may not — be relevant turns up? If that is not the new standard, why make an exception in this case?
An FBI director has never made such a disclosure to Congress so close to an election. To justify a break in that tradition would require far more substantial information than Mr. Comey claims to have in his possession. If hard evidence turns up that a presidential candidate has violated the law, the FBI director could indeed be obliged to say so, disregarding tradition. But by Mr. Comey’s own admission, the bureau has yet to determine whether “this material may be significant.”
Mr. Comey can erase some of the damage by taking firm action to dispel the uncertainty created by his unwise decision to involve the FBI in the election. If the agency knows nothing, it should say so clearly and loudly. Not for the sake of any campaign, but rather in the public interest and for the sake of Mr. Comey’s own reputation and that of the agency he leads.