A reputation for doing the right thing under pressure is hard to make and easy to break. James Comey, the director of the FBI, made his reputation as a man of unimpeachable integrity when he stood up to the administration that appointed him second in command to the attorney general, John Ashcroft, in the administration of George W. Bush. He was put on “the uncomfortable spot” when President Bush wanted to reauthorize domestic eavesdropping on private conversations, eavesdropping even for a worthy cause that Mr. Ashcroft’s Justice Department had determined to be against the law.
The White House was looking for a shortcut across the law, and in March 2004 Andrew Card, the president’s chief of staff, and Alberto Gonzales, the president’s chief lawyer, went to the attorney general’s bedside at a Washington hospital, where he lay seriously ill, to ask him to sign an order reversing the department’s finding and endorse the reauthorization of the eavesdropping program.
Mr. Comey raced to the intensive-care unit at the hospital to urge the attorney general to stand fast, to tell him that he and others at the Justice Department would resign if need be to protest reversing the original order. Shortly afterward, President Bush decided not to seek the reauthorization. Principle prevailed. When the news of the bedside drama leaked, Mr. Comey was lionized for standing fast for what he thought was right. His reputation as the rock at the Justice Department was firmly established. Years later President Obama appointed him to a 10-year term as director of the FBI. Now hard duty calls again, and he may have to choose again between principle and politics.
He has assigned nearly 150 agents to the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s careless handling of confidential emails as the secretary of State on duty at what one official describes as the “intersection of Clinton Foundation donations, the dispensation of State Department contracts and whether regular processes were followed.” There’s evidence that 1,300 of those emails included classified information, some of it “Top Secret” or higher. She insists she did nothing wrong and blames the controversy on the “vast right-wing media conspiracy” that flourishes in her troubled mind.
She may also be vulnerable to several charges of “public corruption.” The FBI describes the unearthing and punishment of public corruption as the agency’s number one criminal priority. Fox News reports that it was told by a Justice Department source that “many previous public corruption cases have been made and successfully prosecuted with much less evidence than what is emerging in this investigation.”
Mr. Comey’s agents will soon recommend either that charges be brought against Hillary Clinton, or not. If not the investigation will be shut down. The White House, determined to protect Hillary and the Democratic presidential campaign, whether the president likes her or not, is eager to shut down the investigation. If the FBI recommends that charges be brought and Mr. Comey declines to take them to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, there will be such anger in the ranks that leaks will water the Washington landscape like an out-of-control lawn sprinkler. If he is persuaded that the evidence is insufficient to obtain a conviction he must be prepared to stand up for those convictions, too.
But if he finds the evidence persuasive, he will have to decide whether to buckle under White House pressure, or stand tall again. His decision will influence the election of a president, and thus the republic, in a profound and lasting way. His decision will be a test of the reputation he has made as an honest man dedicated to principle over partisanship.