The Introduction to US Government text I use encourages our students to think about three aspects of American government: institutions, ideas, and individuals. That’s where my thoughts turned as I watched James Comey’s testimony today.
Americans’ faith in our institutions has been in decline for some time and citizens’ skepticism was both reinforced and repudiated today. The Department of Justice did not have a good day and let me isolate the Obama Department under Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Comey’s decision as director of the FBI to go public with the Clinton email investigation has been alternately criticized and praised depending on partisan leanings. What I did not grasp until today was that Comey felt almost forced to go public because of Attorney General Lynch’s infamous meeting with former President Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac. By her action, Lynch opened a legitimate question of whether the termination of a criminal investigation into the Clinton emails might be executed for political reasons. Likewise, when Lynch pushed Comey to refer to the Clinton investigation not as an investigation but as a “matter” – virtually adopting Clinton campaign terminology – she risked the faith Americans must have in the institution of the Department of Justice.
On the other hand Comey’s robust defense of the FBI as an institution should be absorbed by all Americans. We want law enforcement institutions to follow the evidence and the law, to take a fierce pride in their independence, and to rely on no individual for its vigorous pursuit of the rule of law. Active and retired agents and Comey forcefully today have defended the agency against this administration’s efforts to undermine it. Comey gave us reason to believe that the FBI will be undeterred in its investigation into Russia’s ongoing attack against democracy. We also have every reason to believe that the office of the Special Counsel will follow the facts wherever they may lead.
The idea that we are a nation beholden to the rule of law and not to the whims of any man, even the President of the United States, also had a good day today. But more than that I thought back to a passage from Federalist 51:
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.
Comey was asked if theoretically the president could order any investigation shut down. Well theoretically he answered, yes, but that is outside of our constitutional traditions. In our system the individual who cherishes his or her reputation in office must perform that office honestly and diligently. Comey upheld that idea today and so did most committee members, whether Republican or Democratic.
Finally, even given respect for ideas and institutions, individuals matter. In response to a question from Senator Mark Warner about why he took contemporaneous notes of his meetings with Trump, Comey testified:
A combination of things. I think the circumstances, the subject matter, and the person I was interacting with. Circumstances, first — I was alone with the president of the United States, or the president-elect, soon to be president.
The subject matter I was talking about, matters that touch on the FBI’s core responsibility, and that relate to the president — the president-elect personally — and then the nature of the person. I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it important to document. That combination of things I had never experienced before, but had led me to believe I got to write it down and write it down in a very detailed way.
“[T]he nature of the person.” Think about that. “I was honestly concerned he might lie.” Think about that. “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” An understatement from Federalist 10.
Comey was under oath today, so could himself be prosecuted for any false statements. Like him or not. But he didn’t seem concerned about what any White House tapes might show, did he?