The 2016 election has been renewed for another season. This is like watching a series on Showtime.
For those of you who aren’t plugged into TV’s golden age, Showtime is notorious for pumping artificial life into shows that deserve to die. If Showtime’s suits had “Election ’16,” they’d treat it just like “Dexter” and “Weeds,” insisting on new plot contortions to keep it on the air. They’d probably say something like, “OK, we all know the election is done, we all know that James Comey helped Trump beat Clinton, but this show still has legs. So how about this: Why not have the Justice Department launch an investigation into Comey’s FBI investigation?”
But these days, the contrivances of art can’t begin to compete with life. Late yesterday, we learned that DOJ’s inspector general — the department’s in-house watchdog — is indeed launching a probe of the FBI chief’s election-eve service to the Trump campaign. And although it’s exasperating that we have to keep reliving the ’16 horror show, it’s nonetheless clear that this probe is warranted. It’s too late to undo Comey’s rule-breaking behavior, but better late than never.
Justice inspector general Michael Horowitz said yesterday that he’ll scrutinze Comey “in response to requests from numerous chairmen and ranking members of congressional oversight committees, various organizations, and members of the public” — and no wonder, because Comey’s Oct. 28 announcement about Clinton emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop blatantly violated the longstanding Justice rule that bars the FBI from publicly discussing investigations within 60 days of an election.
Comey’s public hit on Clinton — coupled with the lame caveat that he couldn’t “yet assess whether or not this material may be significant” — was a gift to the Trump team. As evidenced by the polls, it ginned up Trumpkin enthusiasm and stopped Clinton’s momentum. And when Comey said in a subsequent announcement that, false alarm, the material was not significant, it looked like she’d “gotten away with it again.” Granted, she lost for lots of reasons, but a swing of 0.7 percent in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, plus a swing of 0.3 percent in Michigan, would’ve put her in the White House — and that arguably would’ve happened if Comey hadn’t put his thumb on the scale.
It was clear at the time that his actions were outrageous. Larry Thompson, a Republican and former deputy attorney general under George W. Bush, tagged Comey with “misuse of prosecutorial power … It is important not to allow an investigation to become hijacked by the red-hot passions of a political contest.” And, among other Republican critics, ex-Bush legal adviser Richard Painter said: “We cannot allow FBI … to unnecessarily publicize pending investigations concerning candidates of either party while an election is underway. That is an abuse of power.”
And it’s doubly outrageous given what we now know about the FBI’s autumn probe of the Trump-Russia connection. Turns out, Comey’s sleuths were hard on that trail. They repeatedly sought — and, in October, reportedly obtained — federal court permission to wiretap four Trump figures who were suspected of having improper contacts with Russian officials and Russian banks.
Comey didn’t publicly announce that particular probe-in-progress — an intelligence source told CNBC that Comey “was against putting it out before the election” — nor should he have. The Justice Department had rules about such things, after all, rules that had been in effect for decades. But somehow, when the issue was Anthony Weiner’s laptop, the rules didn’t apply. I’ll go out on a limb to suggest that the Trump-Russia links (which grow stronger with each winter disclosure) are far more consequential to our national security than duplicated emails on a laptop.
Horowitz, the DOJ inspector general, is promising to talk publicly about his findings at a date not yet determined — assuming that Trump doesn’t fire Horowitz first. Inspectors general traditionally keep their jobs when administrations change, but Trump could easily see this probe as a threat to his throne.
In the meantime, we’ll always have this week’s pitiful spectacle on Capitol Hill. When Comey was asked in a hearing about the status of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation, here’s what he said in response:
“I would never comment on investigations — whether we have one or not — in an open forum … We never confirm or deny a pending investigation.”
Showtime executives could never find a writer capable of topping the comeback line crafted on the spot by independent Senator Angus King of Maine:
“The irony of your making that statement here, I cannot avoid.”