Last Friday, FBI director James Comey shocked the world by writing a vague, innuendo-filled letter to Congress about his agency’s discovery of emails pertaining to Hillary Clinton’s server scandal. Around the country, people looked at one another and scratched their heads. Did James Comey take up a pro football hobby and get CTE? Is he kidding?
Yesterday we found out the answer. Nope, he was not kidding. He was just getting started.
In the last six days, James Comey’s FBI has blundered its way through bizarre release after bizarre release, confusing absolutely every observer who thought they understood how federal law enforcement worked. I would say he’s put a black eye on his agency, but that would imply the information blitz has completed to a degree that we can assess the damage. As of this writing, we are still very much in the thick of what appears to be a unilateral FBI seizure of the presidential election.
I have no answers for you. Truly, I have no idea what is going on. All I can do is spell out exactly how crazy this is.
Chronologically, this bizarre series of events started on October 8, 2015. On that day, with both primaries getting underway, the FBI sent out a tweet from an account called @FBIRecordsVault. The message was, funny enough, an instruction on how to submit a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request.
Make FOIA requests electronically,receive your response to your email account. Open beta test of eFOIA at: https://t.co/RWylCwh2BX
— FBI Records Vault (@FBIRecordsVault) October 8, 2015
The handle is the FBI’s automated clearinghouse for granted FOIA requests. Its first few years, it published documents regularly. For almost a year between 2014–15 it was silent. Then, on June 12, 2015, the account released a dump of twenty reports: declassified dossiers on everyone from Huey Newton to the Westboro Baptist Church. A few posts later, they published the above tweet.
Then, for over a year, they again went silent.
During the 388 days the FBI wasn’t tweeting FOIA reports, the country became embroiled in the most off-the-rails presidential election in history. The fate of the nation hinged on the ability of an unpopular and malfeasant politician to win an election against an illiterate Morlock. Through it all, the FBI had a starring role.
It wasn’t just fate conspiring to put James Comey’s agency center stage. It was the Clintons, too, who seemingly only realized the need to get their house in order when a presidential nomination snuck up on them. After months of palace intrigue surrounding Hillary’s private email server — fueled by her contradictory excuse-making and Bill’s misguided gladhanding — Comey announced in July that he was “completing” his investigation and recommending no charge be brought against her. That did little to quell Republican bloodlust, but it seemed to most rational people that the FBI director had announced an end to the server affair.
Luckily for planet Earth, Hillary was at least no more law-flouting than Donald Trump, who had a history of legal problems and a reputation as a shady operator in his business dealings.
He also had his own FBI inquiry examining him that month. But it was one the public didn’t know about.
According to a Mother Jones report published Monday, a former spy doing P.I. work for a Trump opponent found evidence that the “Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance.”
The investigator sent his bombshell, which supposedly contained evidence, to the FBI in early July 2016. The reaction from the rank-and-file was “shock,” and supposedly a “substantial” investigation towards the end of the summer, but nothing was released publicly. Even when collusion between Donald Trump, the Kremlin, and Wikileaks became widely suspected — evinced in one case by an August request to Comey, from Democrats, to investigate the role of Russia in the hack of Democratic Party servers — the agency stayed mum.
So far, we can give Comey the benefit of the doubt. As we found out this week, the Trump-Russia investigation came up empty. It’s not for lack of circumstantial evidence, to be sure, but for lack of hard proof that Mother Russia was promoting a Trump presidency. You could forgive Comey for not wanting to wade any further into an election that was quickly turning into chaos only to stir up conjecture about the inconclusive investigation of a candidate.
Except if you skip ahead to last Friday, that’s exactly what he did. And has done again repeatedly in the last week.
On Friday, James Comey the pragmatic bureaucrat decided to have a Tyler Durden freakout. After finding new emails that could potentially, maybe, be tied back to the server investigation, Comey sent his letter to Congress and pitched the entire political world into a frenzy.
Even then, one could make the case that Comey’s action on Friday made sense. He had earlier promised to keep Congress apprised of the progress of the investigation, and given the discovery of Huma’s emails on her husband’s computer, had to decide whether to withhold potentially relevant information or present it. None of us can say what would have happened if Comey elided that evidence and the story leaked — say, by one of the FBI’s many disgruntled, conservative agents. That could have been worse than disclosing it.
The problem was that Comey went about his disclosure in the worst possible way. Instead of specifics, he offered vagaries guaranteed to spur conjecture, no timeline for his new review, and fodder for enough confusion to let everyone spin their own narrative into what will likely turn out to be a non-event. (I assume Huma didn’t email her estranged husband about her boss’s attempts to circumvent the law.)
Regardless of the logic of Comey’s decision, his action was unprecedented. It has been a longstanding policy of prosecutors to not comment on criminal inquiries absent specific charges, and to be very careful what information is brought in the 60 days before an election. Comey violated both principles. More to the point, it made him precisely what he didn’t want to be: a prime mover in a white-knuckle election. Quite a time to be trafficking in explosive innuendo.
Which takes us to that old Twitter handle. The one that lay dormant for a year, waiting for a prudent time to unleash its next batch of FBI files.
No sooner did we all get our heads around what had happened on Friday than a new dump of 21 tweets exploded onto a weary public on Sunday. In it, the FBI released their dossier on Fred Trump and Hillary Clinton’s server, along with a bunch of others.
The timing was so terrible, given proximity to both Comey’s odd revelation and Election Day, that people initially thought the Twitter account had been hacked. Nope, they said.
NBC News: The release of WJC FBI files was sent by the FOIA office under normal guidelines. A proper requested was made -Pete Williams rpts.
— Tom Winter (@Tom_Winter) November 1, 2016
The FBI’s explanation, in other words, was that they are so impartial that they plum disregarded the context into which the revelations were being released.
If you believe this excuse, I have a Trump casino to sell you. First off, the bureau can’t reasonably claim to have simply gotten to these FOIA fulfillments on this timeline. All the documents could have been released months ago. Second, they can’t pretend to be this oblivious of context. There’s a difference between being agnostic on partisan issues and being ignorant — and an even clearer difference between ignorance and intent to meddle. The tweet dump fell decisively into the latter category. Especially in light of what came after.
The day after the tweet dump, law enforcement officials told NBC they were conducting an inquiry into Paul Manafort’s dealings in Ukraine. (Here’s a summary of the powerful position Trump’s former campaign manager had in the pro-Putin administration of Ukraine’s onetime authoritarian.) Which was strange, because it was identical to news we had in August. And, you know, because it was eight days from the fucking presidential election.
Then! After all this! The following day, Tuesday, the FBI continued their hit parade by tweeting their dossier on Bill Clinton’s notorious pardon of tax fugitive and Clinton donor Marc Rich. It was not part of a dump, and it had no useful information in it. The vast majority of the file is redacted. It’s nothing but a screaming reminder of one of the larger embarrassments Bill Clinton brought upon himself. Seven days before the election.
As I said, I have no answers for you. All we know is that for three consecutive days, and on four of the past six days, the FBI has stirred up issues directly relating to the presidential election — without, and this is key, actually saying anything.
The public hasn’t learned a single thing about Marc Rich, or Fred Trump, or Hillary’s server in the past six days. So why is Comey splaying his bureau across the finish line, fomenting a bunch of salacious speculation and not offering any justification for doing so? I’m not a conspiracist, but if this spate of revelations isn’t intentional interference, then we should be genuinely alarmed at the idiocy of the man running the FBI. (Don’t blame the Justice Department; they’ve been begging him to hold off on this, and today Obama publicly rebuked the FBI director.)
What does born-again anarchist James Comey have left up his sleeve? Maybe some exposé about Chelsea Clinton’s NBC contract? Who knows. The only thing that’s clear, at this point, is that the weirdest election ever is in no danger of a quiet finish, thanks to a formerly stoic bureaucrat who is suddenly coming out of his shell — to the puzzlement and detriment of the rest of the free world.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.