There is an interesting interview this week with former FBI Director James Comey. He states that he now believes that the infamous alleged “pee tape” may be real and makes other surprising statements while pitching his new book. One statement, however, stood out: “The Republican party needs to be burned down … It’s just not a healthy political organization.” Since the Republican National Committee was targeted with a pipe bomb in the recent riots, some could argue that this is incitement to arson or violence. I would not. I would call it free speech and hyperbole. The question is where the line is drawn given the impeachment of Donald Trump based on his speech and the allegations that others who used such hyperbolic language are actually guilty of incitement.
As I have previously stated, I condemned Trump’s speech in a series of tweets while it was being given and I called for a bipartisan vote of censure over his responsibility in the riots. However, I opposed the use of a snap impeachment by the House and raised concerns over the framing of the article of impeachment as an “incitement to insurrection.” Despite the chorus of legal experts insisting that the speech would constitute a strong case for criminal incitement (and the DC Attorney General said he may charge Trump), I believe such a prosecution would eventually collapse on free speech grounds if based solely on this speech and Trump’s other public statements.
Comey is not alone in the use of such rhetoric in today’s super-heated political environment. We previously discussed how conservatives have pointed to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) calling for people to confront Republican leaders in restaurants; Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) insisted during 2020’s violent protests that “there needs to be unrest in the streets,” while then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said “protesters should not let up” even as many protests were turning violent. They can all legitimately argue that their rhetoric was not meant to be a call for violence, but this is a standard fraught with subjectivity.
The question is whether Comey would be charged under this same logic if the RNC building was attacked again and actually burned down. That would be obviously ridiculous. However, where is the line drawn? Free speech demands bright lines and those are being erased in our cancel culture from universities to the media to Congress.
The interview also had this remarkable statement on the allegation in the Christopher Steele dossier that the Russian government had a video of Trump watching sex workers urinate on each other in a Moscow hotel room in 2013:
“It came to us in late September. We had information since the summer with which it was consistent and I didn’t know what to make of it, but, because it was from a source who had a track record with the FBI, our team dove into it to see if they could replicate it. I still don’t know. I actually think the Senate intelligence committee report, coupled with [former Trump lawyer] Michael Cohen’s account in his book, probably makes the ‘pee tape’ stuff more likely than it was when I was fired.”
That is an extraordinary assertion based on a widely discredited dossier and the equally discredited Michael Cohen. Comey does not cite what in the Senate intelligence report gives credence to the allegation.
Comey does make a point that I agree with. He does not understand how the rioters gained access to the Capitol and he wants an investigation. I voiced the same suspicion the day of the riot. All of these questions should be answered in a full and transparent way.
The call for a commission is far more constructive than Comey’s version of the “burn baby burn” mantra.