Below is my column in the Hill newspaper on the recent tweets from former Director James Comey attacking allegations that he (and others) abused the secret FISA surveillance system. It is an ironic twist for Comey who is now acting in the same fashion as Trump in commenting on pending investigations and compromising himself as a potential witness or even target in future investigations.
Here is the column:
The recently released memo from the House Intelligence Committee had barely hit the news when phones across the Beltway went off with that all-too-familiar sound: a chirp. However, the blast was not from the tweeter-in-chief but from former FBI Director James Comey.
While many commentators rightfully criticize the costs of President Trump’s past tweets on court rulings and investigations, Comey’s Twitter traffic has continued to grow unabated and largely unaddressed. On this occasion, Comey was taunting the Republicans with a tweet beginning, “That’s it?” It was Trumpian in every respect, an ill-considered tweet discussing the investigation of his own conduct that undermines his position as a possible witness or target.
Many of us supported the appointment of a special counsel after Trump fired Comey in the midst of Comey’s Russian investigation. Soon after his departure, however, Comey began to take actions that seriously undermined his own position, and his value as a witness to special counsel Robert Mueller. Indeed, the special counsel would now be taking a considerable risk by calling Comey on the stand in any prosecution of the president, but Comey could well end up on the witness list for the defense.
In leaving the FBI, Comey improperly removed memos from the Russian investigation that he wrote concerning meetings with Trump. These memos were clearly FBI material, and some were deemed later to be classified. He had neither the authority to take the memos nor any review that confirmed that they were not classified. (Comey could have given the memos to the oversight committees but elected to leak them). Comey then sent some of the memos to a friend to disclose the information to the media. Four of the seven memos that Comey removed are now believed to be classified. He reportedly gave four memos to his friend to leak to the media. Thus, at least one was likely classified.
It was a tragically ironic moment. This was the man who was tasked with finding leakers and became a leaker himself the minute it served his purposes. Moreover, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had called for Comey to be fired for his conduct during the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of private servers for official and classified information. Comey had denounced Clinton’s handling of such material as “extremely careless.” Now, he was sending official and possibly classified material to a friend with the specific purpose of leaking the contents to the media.
Yet, the most curious change in Comey came after the appointment of the special counsel. Comey turned to the same social media vehicle as Trump to attack his opponents. As with the leaking of the FBI memos, the tweets were clearly designed to bolster Comey’s positions against Trump and the Republicans. He was continuing to try to shape the public narrative.
At first, Comey confined his tweets to oblique poetic or literary references with just pictures of himself standing at crossroads or simple landscapes. For example, after former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty as part of the Mueller investigation, Comey posted a link to a photo of a rushing stream with the biblical quotation, “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
In this early period, Comey was tweeting anonymously under the name Reinhold Niebuhr. The choice of Niebuhr was a curious choice, given the theologian’s disdain for hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Niebuhr often discussed “promethean illusion” and how self-love can lead to the false conclusion that you can achieve goodness on your own and through your own actions. Comey continued to communicate as Niebuhr through illusions and quotations, despite the general knowledge that he was Niebuhr and was using the words of others to criticize people like Trump. It was as if Aesop came back to life with a Twitter account to discuss politics through fables.
Eventually, Comey dropped the tiresome pretense and began tweeting directly about events and people under his own name. Recently, he applauded the FBI for pushing back on the House Republicans seeking to release the memo, writing, “All should appreciate the FBI speaking up. I wish more of our leaders would. But take heart: American history shows that, in the long run, weasels and liars never hold the field, so long as good people stand up. Not a lot of schools or streets named for Joe McCarthy.”
There was little question that the “weasels and liars” were references to the Republicans and Trump. Engaging in partisan name-calling is hardly improving Comey’s position, but it got worse after the release of the memo with his latest tweet, “That’s it? Dishonest and misleading memo wrecked the House intel committee, destroyed trust with Intelligence Community, damaged relationship with FISA court, and inexcusably exposed classified investigation of an American citizen. For what? DOJ & FBI must keep doing their jobs.”
Let’s put this one in perspective. The memo concerns allegations that Comey signed off on multiple secret court applications to put a Trump aide under surveillance. It appears that Comey and his staff never told the court that the infamous “dossier” by Fusion GPS was paid for in significant part by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. It was never revealed that the author of the dossier had told the FBI that he was “desperate” to prevent Trump from being president or that he had shopped the story with various reporters, who could not verify its contents.
Various members of Congress have called for a special counsel, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has referred the matter for further investigation within the Justice Department. In other words, Comey is facing calls for investigation and decided to tweet insulting names for his critics and dismissive comments about the investigation. Sound familiar? The only thing Comey did not do is declare the allegations against him to be “fake news.”
Comey continues to react by any means to his critics. He first became a leaker and now is a serial tweeter. That is the problem with our current politics: “Our age knows nothing but reaction and leaps from one extreme to another.” The real Reinhold Niebuhr said that.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. He has been lead counsel in national security cases for more than two decades and has testified before congressional intelligence committees.You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.