James Comey: Democrat by birth, Republican by trade, thorn in the side of both

The imposing FBI director has drawn both praise and scorn from both major parties. But his biggest test – the investigation of Trump’s alleged ties to Russia – lies ahead

By Tom McCarthy / The Guardian / Saturday 25 March 2017 03.00 EDT

It took James Comey less than one minute to reveal his big news at a congressional hearing this week. The imposing FBI director, a former federal prosecutor who stands 6 feet 8 inches tall, began his opening statement by thanking the House intelligence committee for inviting him.

Then he announced that the FBI was eight months into an investigation of some of the president’s closest associates, if not the president himself, for possible cooperation with Russia during last year’s election.

“That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts,” Comey said, deadpan. “As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”

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In an instant, Comey regained, for those whose dearest desire is the downfall of Donald J Trump, the white knight status that has clung to him periodically throughout his career, except when it has fallen away. As major revelations about ties between Trump associates and Moscow continue to emerge, Comey’s inquiry means that a relatively nonpartisan record of those ties is being methodically assembled, and that any criminality could be prosecuted. Trump and his associates have denied any wrongdoing.

It further means that Trump is in a hard corner. In January, the president publicly asked Comey, who is four years into a 10-year term, to stay on as FBI director. For Trump, there seemed little motivation to shove aside a well-regarded longtime Republican whose bureau was decidedly favorable territory for Trump.

In any case, such a request would have been exceedingly rare, and sure to draw accusations of abuse of power by the new president. Now, with the FBIinvestigation having been made public, the political risks for Trump of sacking Comey are exponentially greater.

To say there are a lot of progressive hopes riding on James Comey is an understatement. It’s bracingly ironic, then, that for a lot of Democrats, including Hillary and Bill Clinton, Comey is to blame for making Trump president in the first place.

•••

Who is James Comey? He’s a Methodist convert of Irish descent from New Jersey who made his name cracking down on Virginia gun homicides and prosecuting international terrorism suspects.

His supposed aversion to the spotlight would seem to be belied by his constant reappearance there. Comey is sufficiently Republican to have been appointed deputy attorney general by George W Bush, but grew up sufficiently Democratic to have voted for Jimmy Carter in the incumbent’s blowout 1980 loss. He is a father of five and a foster parent, married to his undergraduate sweetheart. He cycles, plays squash and teaches Sunday school.

Like his three main predecessors as FBI director (not counting interim appointments) Comey is a lawyer, having earned his degree from the University of Chicago in 1985. Now 56 years old, he has alternated in his career between big government jobs and lucrative positions in private practice, including with Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor, and Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, with $103bn in assets under management.

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Leading up to his remarkably high-profile role in the 2016 presidential election, Comey had long enjoyed a reputation for fairness and public-minded integrity. “He doesn’t care about politics,” said Barack Obama upon nominating Comey to run the FBI in 2013. “He only cares about getting the job done.”

Eric Holder, the former attorney general, got to know Comey toward the end of the Bill Clinton presidency, when Holder was deputy attorney general and Comey was a federal prosecutor in Virginia. In an interview with New York magazine in 2003, as Comey joined the Bush administration, Holder emphasized a different quality about the prosecutor.

“Jim is a chess player,” Holder said. “He’s thinking not only, ‘What’s the impact of the move I make today, what’s the impact going to be tomorrow?’ He’s thinking, ‘What’s the impact going to be one month, two months, six months from now?’”

Almost 15 years later, that assessment, of Comey as a far-seeing strategist, has not aged particularly well. Last July, the FBI director took the highly unusual step of calling a news conference to discuss an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information over unsecured email. With the presidency seemingly at stake, Republicans howled at Comey’s announcement that the investigation had yielded no grounds for criminal prosecution. Democrats bridled at Comey’s assessment of Clinton’s email hygiene as “extremely careless”.