The Comey Interview

I didn’t find the ABC interview with former FBI director James Comey to be that interesting in the end. There wasn’t a lot of new information or insight. In fact, David Graham of the Atlantic had a good summary:

The interview also captured the sense of surrealism that has pervaded much of American political life for the last two years. Comey was at the heart of many of the major events in that span, including the Clinton email investigation, the Russian election-interference investigation, and of course his own firing, yet his reaction to these events is as dumbfounded as people who watched from afar. The view from the inside is uncannily like the view from the outside.

Americans’ opinions and political affiliations are unlikely to change after this interview, especially given the pushback from Republicans and Democrats ambivalence toward Comey. As for the most serious allegations against Trump and company, we’ll all just have to wait for the Mueller investigation to reach a conclusion – if it is allowed to finish, of course.

All of that said, here are three observations prompted by the interview.

1. Let’s spread the morality around

A lot is being made of Comey’s remark that Trump is morally unfit to be president.

While I happen to agree, this was quite obvious during the campaign, and many people – not the least evangelicals – still voted for and support him. To this day, I’m not sure what to do with that fact.

Either way, I want to highlight one assumption Comey makes, that I think many Americans share:

There’s something more important than that that should unite all of us, and that is our president must embody respect and adhere to the values that are at the core of this country. The most important being truth. This president is not able to do that. He is morally unfit to be president.

You know what, Congress needs to embody those values, too. We invest too much of our national vision and power in the presidency and the president. We need to demand more all around.

2. In tribal times, conservatives would never have accepted Clinton

When it came to the Clinton and Trump investigations during the campaign, I do think Comey was in a hard place. But looking back now, it’s clear he should have stuck with established protocol and not said much, if anything. Instead, he famously issued updates on the Clinton investigation, and it appears he had political calculations in the back of his mind all along:

Like I said, I don’t remember spelling it out, but it had to have been. That– that she’s going to be elected president, and if I hide this from the American people, she’ll be illegitimate the moment she’s elected, the moment this comes out.

Whether he should have been factoring politics in or not, he sure got his understanding of current American politics wrong here. Clinton would have been seen as illegitimate by the entirety of the conservative political and media class no matter what. Trump was already claiming the election was rigged and raising doubt as to whether he’d accept the results. As a polity, we constantly underestimate the ruthlessness of the modern conservative movement.

As an aside, while some Democrats and analysts and Hillary Clinton herself claim that Comey was the decisive factor in the election, I’m less convinced. In a long, complex campaign, there are many causes. For example, there were tactical errors in the Great Lakes states, and the Democrats have yet to reckon with how unpopular of a person Hillary Clinton was and is. Also, Trump weathered what should have been far worse setbacks, and yet came out on top – just barely, of course, and only with the aid of Russian hacking and through the unfair and antiquated quirks of the Electoral College.

3. In Washington, there is no stain that can’t be washed out

Comey also remarks in the interview that anyone who associates with Trump, in the end, will be permanently marked:

(T)he challenge of this president is that he will stain everyone around him. And the question is, how much stain is too much stain and how much stain eventually makes you unable to accomplish your goal of protecting the country and serving the country?

Okay, he’s totally wrong here. In Washington, the stains almost always wash out, no matter how heinous they might be.

The George W. Bush administration was a disaster – a misguided war of choice in Iraq that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars; the turning the United States into a nation of torturers; the biggest financial and economic collapse since the Great Depression – yet many major players went on with their public or political careers or have landed in prestigious think tank or media roles. Among the promoters of the Iraq War, David Frum is at the Atlantic, and Michael Gerson is at the Washington Post. Among the torturers, Trump has nominated Gina Haspel – a CIA official who operated one of the notorious black sites – to be CIA director, and incredibly, Comey himself worked to justify torture policies. As for the architects of the policy scheme that led to the Great Recession, I’m not aware of one who is in the poor house. George W. Bush himself even got some love recently when he subtly criticized Trump. Even from the Trump administration, Sean Spicer received a warm welcome initially – at the Emmys and Harvard of all places – despite obvious lying to the American public. There is no stain stain-y enough. Returning to the Comey interview, even from the Obama administration, former CIA director David Petraeus has landed comfortably, despite deliberately spreading classified information.

Washington just can’t quit its own inside players.

Bottom line, Comey is part of a long and growing list of public figures – including Hillary Clinton and Trump himself – that I wish would just pass from the political scene.

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