In the two years since James Comey was fired by Donald Trump, the former FBI director has become one of the most polarizing figures connected to the eventual Mueller investigation: Hailed as a hero and a martyr by the #Resistance left, derided as a self-serving leaker by Trump’s allies on the right. Comey’s critics argued that the former director had broken the law by feeding memos of his private meetings with Trump to a friend, with instructions to leak the substance of them to the press. Now, the verdict is in—and it turns out the critics were at least partially correct.
The news comes in the form of a report released Thursday by the Justice Department’s inspector general, taking Comey to task for his self-serving decision to leak the content of the memos. The report partially explains why the Justice Department decided not to prosecute Comey earlier this month, as the inspector general found no evidence to support Trumpworld’s most dire accusation: that Comey had deliberately and knowingly leaked classified information. But the rest of the report is more damning, calling Comey a “dangerous example” of a director using his position to his personal advantage while intentionally violating FBI and Justice Department policy. It also details how Comey treated other classified documents in a careless way, keeping several memos containing secret information in a personal safe at home.
“Comey had several other lawful options available to him to advocate for the appointment of a Special Counsel, which he told us was his goal in making the disclosure,” the report reads. “What was not permitted was the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive investigative information, obtained during the course of FBI employment, in order to achieve a personally desired outcome.”
The report has naturally inspired an ample amount of schadenfreude in Trumpworld, whose denizens love to see the president’s foes thrown from their high horses. This, in turn, has provoked a certain amount of harrumphing from Comey’s own supporters—after all the wretched stuff Trump gets up to every day, we’re supposed to be horrified by Comey massaging DOJ policy a bit?
To indulge in such harrumphing is a strong temptation. It is also a mistake. It is not enough for Trump’s skeptics to expect their leaders to behave better than the president. We must demand that our leaders abide to a higher standard regardless of how egregiously the president flouts it—a standard that Comey’s conduct fails to meet.
As the IG report takes pains to point out, Comey’s breach of policy was no small thing. To handle the nation’s classified information is a solemn duty that we entrust only to a certain number of our fellow citizens. The understanding is that they are only to make use of that information in relation to their roles as public servants, never for their own personal advancement or gain. To enforce this standard is difficult—by necessity, it is sustained largely by agents’ public-spiritedness and the public’s trust. For the FBI director to abandon that standard on his way out the door does undeniable damage to both.
And it isn’t just that Comey violated FBI protocols. The former director has followed that decision up by embarking on a self-serving mission to cast himself as one of the president’s most prominent ethics-based critics, going after Trump with a stern “Mr. President, we won’t stand for this” frown. But if Comey actually hoped to help any anti-Trump cause, he’d have been much better off setting a good example by keeping his mouth shut and fading quietly into the background. If, on the other hand, he mostly just wanted to burnish his personal brand—well, then it becomes clearer why he’s behaved like he has.
A certain strain of thinking among Trump’s political opponents goes like this: He’s tossed out the rulebook and operates according to a sheer will to power, and we’re naïfs and fools if we won’t willingly do the same to beat him. If nothing else, Comey should serve as an example of the dangers of this thinking. Those who pretend to be motivated only by high principle while actually grubbing around for personal power may find themselves left with neither principle nor power, only their own hypocrisy.