A little over 40 years ago, Richard Nixon went from a landslide re-election winner to a president forced to resign in disgrace. Nixon’s downfall was the direct result of his unsuccessful attempts to politicize through patronage of an independent, straight-arrow FBI. The commonsense, ethical lesson from this for all government officials would be to avoid attempts to use our nation’s independent fact-finder as a partisan force.
There is as well, of course, a more perverse lesson to be learned from Nixon’s downfall at the hands of an independent FBI, to wit: there is much power to gain by politicizing the Bureau, but only if its upper-leadership team is all on partisan board. Emerging evidence increasingly suggests, sadly, that this was former FBI Director James Comey’s leadership strategy in our country’s most sensitive investigations.
In the years running up to the 1972 election, Deputy Associate FBI Director Mark Felt, serving under feisty bulldog J. Edgar Hoover, staunchly refused the entreaties of Nixon lieutenants to act politically, e.g., to whitewash an ITT/Republican bribery scheme and to lock up innocent war protestors. Felt, the natural successor to Hoover, fell out of White House favor as a result.
Following the death of Hoover in May 1972, Nixon appointed in place of Felt the decent but politically malleable L. Patrick Gray. When six weeks later five burglars were arrested in the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, Nixon’s Justice Department tried to limit, through Gray, the scope of the FBI’s investigation. Unfortunately for Nixon, regular Bureau agents, led quietly but spectacularly by Felt, fought these attempts, with a far worse result for Nixon than if the Bureau had been left alone to do its job.
In the years running up to the 2016 presidential election, Comey made sure not to make the same “mistakes” of Felt that plagued Nixon. The IRS conservative harassment scandal was swept under the rug. The Clinton Foundation, seemingly overtly corrupt, was given a pass even after the Uranium One sale by a large Clinton Foundation donor was approved by the Clinton State Department. Comey even went so far as to take the unusual step of exonerating Hillary Clinton for her grossly negligent handling of classified materials, not a decision that was his to make. More shockingly, he permitted the destruction of 30,000 Clinton emails and relevant hard drives. It strains credulity to contend that Comey would have done the same for President Donald Trump if the occasion arose.
Comey’s exoneration of Clinton clearly transgressed clear DOJ standards, although Comey makes a tenuous argument that this was made necessary by the clear bias of Attorney General Loretta Lynch. In so doing, though, he admits that the proper course would have been to recommend a Special Counsel. But, stunningly, he also admits in his recent book that he did not do so because the public might think she was guilty, a political calculation if there ever was one.
Recent revelations show, chillingly, that he involved the FBI in what appears to have been a plot to entrap, and even frame, a political opponent and his campaign regarding Russian collusion. This radical politicization of the Bureau makes any Nixonian scheme seem like child’s play. Nixon shamefully tricked the FBI into doing a routine background check on his enemy, journalist Daniel Schorr. Comey outdid Nixon by a wide margin, using his FBI to construct a false case of possible treason against a political enemy.
During the Watergate investigation, Felt sought not to frame anyone but merely to be allowed to fully pursue the bureau’s investigation, so that no one could accuse the FBI of conducting a “whitewash.” Felt and his bureau were resisting politicization, not pursuing it, even though helping the party in power, Nixon’s, would have brought accolades and perks to his leadership team.
When, in 1972, Director Gray told Felt to “wrap up” the Watergate investigation in 72 hours, a Time magazine reporter, likely at Felt’s suggestion, called Gray inquiring about the order. Gray blew a fuse, but rescinded the order. Then when Gray and his DOJ superiors limited the Watergate prosecution to the seven originally-apprehended defendants, Felt pushed reporter Bob Woodward to explore what Felt knew to be a wider campaign of spying and sabotage. When Woodward failed to understand that to which Felt had pointed him, Felt helped the reporter understand the scheme in an all-night garage session. But raw FBI information was not leaked. Felt was not giving facts to Woodward, but teaching him how to gather facts and construct from them an overall narrative theme. The result was a series of brilliant reports which transfixed the nation.
Felt only wanted the FBI to be free to do its job, and could not have predicted the extreme extent of the fallout from the resulting explosion. Many years later, this man of honor said he was “not out to get Nixon,” but, rather, “was only doing my job.” So to compare Felt to today’s weaving spiders in Comey’s FBI hierarchy does gross disservice to Felt and all who served with him, as well as the many honorable agents following.
Felt lost his career — and his wife to suicide — in the tumultuous post-Watergate catharsis. Through it all, however, he retained his honor. And until the recent FBI regime of Comey, McCabe, Strzok, Page and others, there has been scant evidence of partisanship or dishonor in the FBI, as the scandal-free, effective leadership of Robert Mueller seems to corroborate. But now there has emerged simply too many highly questionable, partisan aspects of Comey’s “Russian Collusion” investigation to conclude similarly about his leadership team.
Comey knew that the Steele dossier was opposition research trash, but premised an investigation on it. After originally failing, without the false dossier, to obtain a FISA warrant to surveil the Trump campaign, he used the Dossier to obtain FBI warrants to eavesdrop on an opponent he had admittedly loathed. Rather than separating his bureau from Steele, Comey agreed to hire him, pulling out of the deal only because Steele became vulnerable as a proven leaker and liar. Comey’s entire leadership team, including number-two man Andrew McCabe, counterintelligence chief Strzok and legal counsel Lisa Page, all seemed to have been involved in framing Trump, working with partisan CIA Director John Brennan. When Strzok was being candid with his lover Page, he later resisted joining the Special Counsel’s Russian probe because he knew “there was no there there.” Did Comey inform Rosenstein of the vacuity of the charges on which the appointment of Mueller was based? We doubt it.
Baseless claims did not stop Comey. He tried to use the salacious allegations as leverage against Trump in his January 6, 2017 meeting with the president-elect, concealing their partisan provenance and lack of credibility. Part of the meeting’s purpose was to give DNI James Clapper a news “hook” to leak the dossier’s claims to CNN, which dutifully trashed Trump, and provided Buzzfeed an excuse to smear Trump by publishing the whole megillah. Comey then began making book on his new boss, writing four memos to use as ammunition against him in the future. But all of this, it now turns out, is not the entirety of the iceberg, as it seemed just days ago.
It is now coming to light that the FBI was setting up Trump ever since he became a likely presidential nominee. In late 2015, Brennan embraced a false tip from Estonia that Putin was seeking to support Trump financially, and brought Comey into an ‘intra-agency” group targeting Trump. On March 21, 2016, candidate Trump met with The Washington Post editorial board, which asked about his foreign policy credentials. To bolster his team’s strength, perhaps inflationarily, he named lowly, clueless hangers-on George Papadopoulos and Carter Page as part of his team with Russian experience — literally true, but nonetheless a strenuous stretch. It was then that the entrapping forces of Comey, Clapper, and Brennan, partisans all, went to work.
Approaches were made by “confidential human source” intermediaries to Papadopoulos, Page, Trump aides Sam Clovis and Michael Caputo, and likely others, to induce interest in Russian-hacked emails. The DOJ Number Four, Bruce Ohr, whose wife Nellie Ohr was behind the Steele Dossier, himself met with Christopher Steele.
A member of Comey’s team travelled to England around May 2016, well before the now-asserted start of the collusion investigation, presumably to speak with either or both Steele and confidential informants. It is impossible to believe that Comey was not behind all this and, indeed, he now defends “confidential human sources” as being both necessary and in grave danger, as if being run behind the former Iron Curtain and marked for execution.
One question to be asked is why Comey felt the need to question Papadopoulos with an undisclosed spy, using entrapping questions, when an identified FBI agent could have done the same job, at least the parts that constituted legitimate inquiry about Russian activity. The answer is, of course, that an identified FBI agent would serve, appropriately so, as a warning, not as a trap. Indeed, Comey and the team twice decided not to provide the usual “defensive briefing” given to innocent compromat targets. Apparently these partisans were more interested in entrapment than in patriotic assistance.
If there was any doubt about the political motivation of Comey, it was removed by his rhetoric following his ouster, clothed in talk of FBI independence and ethics, but revealing raging partisan animus toward Trump. Every American has a right to political beliefs, but it hardly behooves the dignity of a former FBI Director to speak as such a nakedly partisan actor.
Thousands of loyal, straight, politically-independent FBI personnel understand the damage Comey has done to the Bureau to which they devoted their lives in service to their country. We should all sincerely hope and pray that new FBI Director Christopher Wray will right the ship, restoring its honor and, above all, its cherished, apolitical independence.
John D. O’Connor is the San Francisco attorney who represented W. Mark Felt during his revelation as Deep Throat in 2005. O’Connor is the co-author of “A G-Man’s Life: The FBI, Being ‘Deep Throat,’ and the Struggle for Honor in Washington” and is a producer of “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” (2017), written and directed by Peter Landesman.