Former FBI director James Comey endorsed the agency’s capability to impartially investigate allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, writing in a Sunday New York Times op-ed that the bureau is staffed with “people who just want to figure out what’s true.” Such an angle could lead readers to believe that his purpose was to provide an unvarnished overview of his old employer’s work in circumstances like these.
Instead, Comey coated his assessment in punditry and contradicted other officials who have commented on the record about the Kavanaugh case. He concluded that Democrats and Republicans are liable to dismiss the FBI’s findings as tainted or persecutory either way. Comey himself stated that investigating the judge isn’t a political endeavor, but rather an effort to “find facts.” If only his column’s purpose had an equally clear distinction.
He likened Kavanaugh’s temperament to that of President Trump, for example, a misplaced comparison that lacks any apparent rationale. “We live in a world where the president routinely attacks the F.B.I. because he fears its work. He calls for his enemies to be prosecuted and his friends freed,” wrote Comey. “We also live in a world where a sitting federal judge channels the president by shouting attacks at the Senate committee considering his nomination and demanding to know if a respected senator has ever passed out from drinking.”
The record of Trump’s behavior is evident. But Kavanaugh’s testimony last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee was not an act of intimidation or manipulation. He lacks the standing: Whereas the president controls the FBI’s fate, the Senate controls Kavanaugh’s. The judge was punching up, not down, at a process he sees as marred by politics. The propriety of his defense and the angry manner in which he leveled it are matters of public opinion and debate among the senators who would vote on his nomination. Its link to Trump, however, is forced.
Comey re-centered his argument on the FBI: Under stress and amid oppressive partisanship, it “is now being asked to investigate, on a seven-day clock, sexual assaults that the president says never happened, that some senators have decried as a sham cooked up to derail a Supreme Court nominee, and that other senators believe beyond all doubt were committed by the nominee.” But it’s the process, not the contemporary political environment, that was more irksome to him.
“If truth were the only goal, there would be no clock,” Comey wrote, which he called “idiotic” elsewhere in the op-ed. “Instead, it seems that the Republican goal is to be able to say there was an investigation and it didn’t change their view, while the Democrats hope for incriminating evidence to derail the nominee.”
Implicating the Democrats here was odd. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and the Judiciary committee’s top Democrat Dianne Feinstein wrote on September 23 that the additional work they were requesting from the FBI “will not take a ‘tremendous amount of time,’” quoting a phrase used by the president.
Senator Chris Coons was the most vocal advocate of a one-week check a few days later, during the committee’s hearing with Kavanaugh and his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. “[W]hy not agree to a one-week pause to allow the FBI to investigate all these allegations and allow you an opportunity a week from now to have the folks present in front of us for us to assess their credibility and for us to either clear your name or resolve these allegations by moving to a different nominee?” Coons asked Kavanaugh.
He later wished Kavanaugh “would join us in calling for an FBI investigation for one week”—the word “us” indicating that a week was a Democratic party preference.
A statement from Schumer the same day urged the president “to have the FBI reopen the investigation for several days.”
This general window—a week, several days—was an acceptable request, say FBI experts not named James Comey. The Associated Press reported:
Experts say the work can be done in a matter of days in most circumstances.
Ron Hosko, a former FBI assistant director, said background investigations done by the bureau typically have short turnaround times because the requesting agency needs the information quickly in order to make a decision on the nominee.
The FBI cannot force someone to talk to them as part of the process.
“Based on what we publicly know as far as the universe of people, I don’t see any reason why the FBI could not complete an investigation within one week,” said Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer and expert in security clearance and background investigations.
If Democrats are “hop[ing] for incriminating evidence against the nominee,” as Comey wrote, they would hope for it after a month just as they would after a week. What they do with the evidence after any period is outside the FBI’s purview.
Curiously, Comey argued against himself in the following paragraph. “[T]he F.B.I. is up for this. It’s not as hard as Republicans hope it will be,” he wrote. “F.B.I. agents are experts at interviewing people and quickly dispatching leads to their colleagues around the world to follow with additional interviews. Unless limited in some way by the Trump administration, they can speak to scores of people in a few days, if necessary.”
The extent to which the president wanted the bureau to minimize the background check’s scope is unknown, based on competing press accounts and information from the White House, wrote Greg Sargent on Monday morning. But contra Comey, time does not seem to be an obstacle to any fact-finding mission.
Strange, considering we live in a world where only he is right.