In a speech in North Carolina Tuesday night, Donald Trump charged that the FBI’s recommendation not to prosecute Hillary Clinton was the result of a “rigged system” produced by a “bribe” to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the theory being that Clinton had promised to reappoint Lynch in return for Lynch offering protection against prosecution.
Other GOP leaders also rushed to challenge the integrity of the recommendation. House Speaker Paul Ryan claimed that the decision by FBI Director James Comey “defies explanation” and confirms that that Clinton “lives above the law.” He also announced that the House would investigate the process by which Comey reached his decision, a decision echoed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Grassley, who suggested the FBI director “was pulling punches” on Clinton’s behalf.
“If she were a Republican, she would have been indicted by now,” U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas said.
Let’s be clear what is being alleged here, because it’s important:
Comey is a registered Republican and experienced career prosecutor. He was first appointed as a U.S. attorney by President George W. Bush, who later promoted him to deputy attorney general. He was appointed to a 10-year term as FBI director in 2013 and was confirmed in the Senate by a vote of 93-1, indicating broad, bipartisan confidence in his abilities and integrity.¹ (Sen. Rand Paul was the only naysayer.) Throughout his career, Comey has been known in Washington as someone who is immune to pressure and who calls things as he sees them. That’s why he has the job he has, and prior to Tuesday’s announcement a lot of Republicans had expressed confidence that he would do the right thing.
However, if this is rigged, as Trump and others now allege, if the decision “defies explanation” despite Comey’s very clear explanation, if Lynch somehow pressured Comey into this decision, then we are forced to conclude that Comey’s reputation for integrity is false. His critics are not only saying that Comey folded under the heat, they are suggesting that his statement Tuesday was a complete and utter fabrication.
When Comey told the American people that it wasn’t a close call because “no reasonable prosecutor” would have filed charges, when he says that he could find no precedent for someone being prosecuted in a similar situation, when he says point-blank that “the investigation was done competently, honestly, and independently” and “no outside influence of any kind was brought to bear,” when he says the FBI operated “in an entirely apolitical and professional way,” Trump and other GOP critics are saying that is all a lie created as a political coverup.
And it’s fair in such a situation to ask: Upon what evidence do they make such a serious claim? The fact that Comey’s conclusion was politically inconvenient to Republicans desperate for an electoral lifeline, that it dashed conservative fantasies about seeing Clinton in orange prison garb? If that’s evidence of anything, it’s evidence of the GOP’s divorce from reality. The truth is that there is no evidence even hinting that Comey was subject to political meddling, let alone that he bowed to that pressure. (His harsh public criticism of Clinton’s judgment makes it still harder to sustain that argument of favoritism.)
It also demonstrates how cavalierly and routinely our leaders now undermine public confidence in government and in those who attempt to function honorably within that government, just for the sake of a small political advantage. Differences in judgment and viewpoint are no longer treated as such, instead becoming excuses to condemn the whole governmental edifice as corrupt. And we are reaping the consequences of that cynicism.
¹Speaking on the floor of the Senate in 2013, Grassley called Comey “a fine choice” as FBI director and lauded him for his “refreshing” candor during his confirmation hearings.