The confrontation between FBI director James Comey and his would-be tormentors on the House Government Oversight Committee revealed something far more fundamental about politics in America today than the reasons why Hillary Clinton will not be prosecuted over her “damned emails.”
The calm, intelligent, upright Comey, focused on facts and fair play, represents what the Republican Party once was at its best. The dim, ultra-partisan, conspiracy-obsessed Republicans who interrogated him on Thursday represent the sad condition of the Grand Old Party today.
That dismal contrast between sanity and lunacy is why such Congressional show trials repeatedly flop. The interrogation of Comey ordered by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the committee chair, provided a perfect example of the syndrome that afflicts them, which now appears to be incurable.
House Republicans blew a perfectly good opportunity to embarrass Clinton over the highly critical remarks made by Comey in announcing his decision not to prosecute — remarks that were unusual, since most investigations are just thumbs up or down, with no public explanation.
The Republicans could have invited Comey up to Capitol Hill to enumerate the problems his investigators found in Clinton’s email system. They could have asked him to explain why he described her handling of classified and sensitive information as “extremely careless.” They could have displayed those findings in a way that emphasized the distrust too many Americans feel toward her.
But that kind of hearing would have required them to accept Comey’s decision, as Chaffetz had previously said they would. Instead, they denounced his decision, hinted that he had participated in a corrupt process, and attacked the integrity of the FBI director and his agency. They set up a debate that they could not win, since he knew the facts and they clearly did not.
Indeed the hearing may well prove beneficial to Clinton overall, with revelations of basic facts that tend to bolster her exoneration and soften Comey’s verbal indictment of her.
The committee Democrats, led by the sharp and indefatigable Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), made the most of the opportunity afforded them by the Republican leadership. Meanwhile the Republican members, throwing up baseless theories that Comey easily shot down, repeatedly violated the most basic rule of competent trial attorneys: Never ask a question if you don’t already know the answer. Their reward was to listen haplessly as Comey, whom they had antagonized from the beginning, delivered answers that made them look foolish.
Was Clinton’s email system penetrated by “Guccifer”, the Romanian hacker who had boasted of purloining her messages, asked one of them expectantly, reiterating a staple of right-wing conspiracy-minded websites? “He admitted that was a lie,” replied the FBI chief. “Well…it’s good to know that,” said his inquisitor, lamely.
The Republican questions pandered heavily to their most paranoid constituents, who believe that “the Clintons” have repeatedly escaped punishment for a variety of mostly imaginary offenses. Having suggested that Comey colluded in that pattern, by allowing Hillary to escape prosecution for conduct that led to convictions in earlier cases, they forced him to prove those charges false. And with the assistance of committee Democrats, who became his de facto allies, he did.
Comey demonstrated exactly how the offenses committed by retired General David Petraeus, who had disclosed reams of highly classified information to his mistress (and biographer), differed from Clinton’s accidental disclosure of a few innocuous documents that probably shouldn’t have been classified at all. He retreated from his criticism of Clinton, to a degree, when he conceded under Democratic questioning that out of tens of thousands of documents, only three were arguably “classified” when they crossed her email account — and that those three were incorrectly marked. Based on the inconspicuous and incorrect markings, the FBI director could scarcely defend the notion that she should have known those pages were classified.
None of those fundamental findings will change the aggrieved mindset of the GOP base, however, as they listen to whispered accusations against Comey, an honorable, lifelong Republican who has devoted three decades to public service. Republican leaders, to their disgrace, have encouraged those corrosive attitudes for many years and continue to do so. Then they ask, in self-pitying tones, why their party is afflicted by a figure like Donald Trump.
Photo: FBI Director James Comey testifies during a House Judiciary hearing on “The Encryption Tightrope: Balancing Americans’ Security and Privacy” on Capitol Hill in Washington March 1, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts