The 2020 election is just eight months away, U.S. intelligence says Russia is again trying to influence the outcome, and the president is ousting senior justice, national security, and intelligence officials in favor of political loyalists.
Yet it was the FBI’s investigation in 2016 into Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified emails and the Trump campaign’s alleged coordination with Russia during the election that audience members couldn’t hear enough about from James Comey, the former FBI director, during an Institute of Politics talk Monday evening at Harvard Kennedy School’s JFK Jr. Forum.
Moderator Eric Rosenbach, M.P.P. ’04, a former cyber expert at the Pentagon and former chief of staff to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter from 2015 to 2017, pressed Comey to explain to the capacity crowd why the bureau’s Trump campaign probe, which began in late July 2016, was kept secret from voters while Comey reported on the Clinton inquiry’s status that same month and again in late October that year.
Calling that episode “a nightmare I can’t awaken from,” Comey nevertheless defended his decision, saying the cases were at different stages that July. Clinton’s case had been public since 2015, while Trump’s was in its earliest days and did not yet involve the candidate.
Though he knows that Clinton wrote in her memoir that Comey “shivved” her by going public with his concerns on Oct. 28 and that he has caused Clinton supporters, including his wife, “a lot of pain,” Comey said he would not apologize to her because he never intended to help or hurt her campaign. He said his motivation was simply to be transparent in order to maintain public faith in the FBI.
“I knew I was totally screwed,” he said of his decision. “Personally, it was disastrous for me. A lot of people don’t like me. OK, but at the end of my life, I’m going to tell my grandchildren … ‘Here’s what I did and why.’ And I’m really comfortable with that.”