As the 2016 Presidential Election rushed toward its inevitable conclusion, James Comey stepped back into the spotlight and played his hand. A long-time Republican, the timing of his announcement that the Hillary Clinton email saga was in fact, not over, seemed to cement the Director’s position in Donald Trump’s camp. In the months since the election though, his party pendulum has swung; with his recent testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Comey garnered democratic support and republican ire when only 6 months ago the opposite was true. To view the Director only through the lense of the 2016 campaigns and subsequent administration would be akin to assembling a puzzle while missing the majority of the pieces. At only 52 years of age, Comey’s rise through the Department of Justice has been nothing short of meteoric, and it began long before Trump filed his primary registration forms.
James “Jim” Brien Comey Jr., was born on December 14th 1960, the second of four Irish children in a small borough of Bergen County, New Jersey, where his father worked in real estate and served on the town council. The mayor described the family as being very involved in community organizations, from church events to Girl Scout troops. His first brush with the criminal world came in 1977 when Comey, then a 17 year-old high school senior and his younger brother were held hostage by a suspected serial rapist and robber.
The assailant broke into the house while the brothers were alone for the night; the two managed to escape and were nearly recaptured before successfully fleeing and calling the police as the attacker vanished into the night. In speaking about the experience Comey said, “At one point, I thought—I knew—that I was going to die that night…It gave me a sense of how precious and short life is. Second, it gave me a keen sense for what victims of crime feel. I know that in some sense, they never get over it. That’s helped me as a prosecutor. I survived that experience, as did my brother, and we became—we hope—healthy adults. But it stayed with me for a long time.” No one was ever charged for the crimes.
Comey would graduate high school the following spring, go on to the College of William and Mary with a double major in chemistry and religion, and then complete his Juris Doctor (J.D.) from the prestigious University of Chicago Law School in 1985. After graduation, Comey clerked for then-United States District Judge John M. Walker, Jr., in Manhattan and worked briefly in private practice. In 1987, the same year he married his wife Patrice, he transitioned to the U.S. attorney’s office where he became an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan under Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
By 1993, Comey was deputy director of the office’s criminal division and worked on high profile cases such as the six-month prosecution of John Gambino of the Gambino crime family. However, he and his wife sought calmer territory to raise their five children. That year he resigned and the Comey family left New York, bound for Virginia.
Comey again attempted to work in the private sector but found himself unsettled after successfully defending a corporate client on a case where they were accused of using machinery that caused asbestos injuries. Subsequently, Comey rejoined the U.S. attorney’s office, accepting an offer from a Clinton appointee to the Eastern District of Virginia to serve in the Richmond office. While there, he drew praise and national attention for his successful efforts to lower Richmond’s notoriously high homicide rate. His team’s strategy, known as Project Exile, was to federalize illegal gun possession.This enabled his office to try individuals charged with illegal gun possession in federal court, where the sentences are longer and harsher than state courts.
Another professional victory for Comey came early in the Bush administration when, in 2001, then-FBI Director Louis Freeh shifted the investigation of the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, a US military facility in Saudi Arabia in which 19 US Servicemen were killed, from stalled Washington attorneys to Comey in Richmond. In three months, Comey and company returned 14 indictments which previous prosecutors had failed to deliver for five years, and six months later an impressed George W. Bush nominated him to the position of United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He remained in the office until only December 2003, when Comey was confirmed as Deputy Attorney General following an October nomination, again by President Bush. Comey’s new position would set up his role in a confrontation which, in no small part, shaped Comey’s public image until the 2016 election.
In March of 2005, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft had to undergo emergency surgery to remove his gallbladder. In his absence, the deputy attorney general assumes the position of acting attorney general who was, at the time, James Comey. At the same time, senior White House counsel Albert Gonzales (who would later be appointed U.S. Attorney General) and presidential Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. were seeking to re-up a warrantless and highly controversial domestic wiretapping program known as Stellar Wind. Comey, Ashcroft and other senior justice officials, including the Director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, were on the brink of resignation in defiance.
The discussions leading up to the program’s expiration date became increasingly hostile, with one last standoff at 1600 Pennsylvania ending when according to one account, Comey claimed that there was no legal basis for the order, that ‘no lawyer would reasonably rely on it,’ to which Vice President Cheney’s lawyer responded, “Well I’m a lawyer and I did.” Comey returned, “No good lawyer.” The room descended into silence.
Ultimately, Comey, as the acting Attorney General, denied the White House’s extension request. Unwilling to accept this, the Gonzales and Card attempted to circumvent Comey’s temporary authority by getting the hospitalized Ashcroft to sign off himself. Unbeknownst to them, Comey caught wind of their scheme and it became a race to Ashcroft’s bedside, with Comey arriving at George Washington University Medical Center moments prior to the senior White House staffers to inform his ailing boss of the situation.
A tense standoff took place in which Gonzales and Card pressured Ashcroft to sign the extension order, with Comey standing stoically to the side. According to former Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman, Ashcroft refused to do so, saying he never should have signed it in the first place.
The order expired.
Although only days later a version of it, rewritten to circumvent the authority of the Justice Department, was signed by Gonzales. The incident became the stuff of Washington legend, and Comey would later testify about it during the confirmation hearings for Albert Gonzales to become U.S. Attorney General.
James Comey would remain deputy attorney general until 2005. Seven months into Gonzales’ tenure as USAG, Comey departed for Lockheed Martin, a private defense contractor where he was a senior vice president and general legal counsel from 2005 to 2010. From there he moved to the Connecticut-based hedge fund Bridgewater Associates. He left Bridgewater in 2013 to teach national security law at Columbia. In a speech to NSA staffers in 2005 Comey said,
“It can be very, very hard to be a conscientious attorney working in the intelligence community. Hard because we are likely to hear the words, ‘If we don’t do this, people will die’…‘No’ must be spoken into a storm of crisis, with loud voices all around, and with lives hanging in the balance. . . . It takes an understanding that, in the long run, intelligence under the law is the only sustainable intelligence in this country.”
Comey remained in New York until his appointment as Director of the Federal Bureau of Intelligence in 2013.
At a commanding 6-foot-8-inches, James Comey towers over most in his presence. When announcing his appointment, President Obama joked that Comey is, “a man who stands very tall for justice and the rule of law. I was saying while we were taking pictures with his gorgeous family here that they are all what Michelle calls ‘normal height’” (The former first lady stands at an impressive 5’11 herself).
James Comey became the seventh FBI director on July 31, 2013 when he was confirmed by an overwhelming margin of 93-1 (Rand Paul was the only nay vote), taking the place of his good friend and ally Robert Mueller III. Comey is contracted for a ten year term, ending in 2023. He is among the very few government officials who remain from the Obama administration, as most have resigned or are being replaced with officials from the new Administration.
Now in his fourth year as Director, Comey has long since emerged as a powerful player on the Washington circuit; engaging in highly publicized dealings with figures including of course, Secretary of State turned Democratic nominee for President, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Their turbulent and often contentious relationship, which began after the Benghazi attack and continued, under heavy scrutiny, through her 2016 presidential campaign, drew massive media coverage and at times placed Comey at the forefront of public attention.
There are four situations which stand-out in understanding the current public uncertainty over Comey’s allegiances. The first was discussed previously, his 2007 testimony regarding the events of Comey’s time as acting AG, pitting the White House against himself and Ashcroft over Stellar Wind. The results of this incident and the outstanding moral character displayed by Comey were a significant factor in President Obama’s decision to nominate him in 2013. The next two were in regards to the Clinton email scandal. First, after months of intensive investigations, Comey addressed the press and in a display highly uncharacteristic of the Bureau, laid out what the FBI had searched, what they had discovered and what they would recommend to the prosecutors at the Department of Justice. After stressing how boisterous outside opinions had played no role in his investigations, Comey stated that the FBI would recommend no charges be filed against Clinton.
Democrats were, generally, satisfied. Republicans focused on the harsh description of Clinton’s “carelessness” which Comey included in his address.
In 2016, about a week before the general election James Comey sent a letter to Congress notifying them of the FBI’s intent to investigate new emails found from Clinton’s time as Secretary of State. The fallout would be disastrous for the already flailing democratic campaign.
When Hillary Clinton was stunningly defeated days later, many placed the blame squarely on Comey’s head. Citing his letter, many claimed he intended to tip the electorate in the Trump campaign’s favor. Forgotten was the Comey who stood up to the the highest echelons of the Bush administration, or who sought a full and fair investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails in the face of rabid public attention. It would only be acknowledged by the media months later that it is routine for federal investigations to find new information after their official conclusions, and that the new information is always studied to ensure it does not alter the facts of the case as they were understood.
The most recent shift in Comey’s supposed political alliances came only weeks after President Trump’s inauguration; winner of the election so many felt Comey handed to him. The new president infamously tweeted shocking and baseless claims that the outgoing Obama administration had wiretapped Trump tower during the campaign. Comey, as Director or the FBI was testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on the separate issue of Russian interference in the presidential election. Via Trump’s live tweets, Congressmen were able to question Comey real time about these new allegations and Trump’s characterizations of Comey’s responses to them.
Comey stated there was no evidence to support Trump’s wiretapping tweets.
While the Director was still testifying, the President tweeted, “The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process.” A Congressman read aloud the tweet and asked Comey to respond, to which he said “It was not our intention to say that today.”
Now, if James Comey is wielding his power to serve his own political inclinations, who is he supporting? Some claim he shattered Clinton’s hopes of winning the election; some claim he is attempting to sink Trump’s credibility and turning on him publicly. The truth is while James Comey was long ago registered as a Republican he no longer is now. But more importantly, the Director is non-partisan.
The Director swore that he would uphold the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. There was no mention of discriminating along party lines. The Director addressed his Bureau and said, “I expect that you will work hard. Your work, no matter what you do here, is to do good. Your work is to protect the innocent from harm of all kinds.”
The Director, as the man James, as a United States Attorney and as a Deputy Attorney General, has worked fastidiously to better the Unites States. He is a man of great moral character and of remarkable integrity. He is the kind of man you want standing between the USA and her enemies. He serves no master but justice.
“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”