Thursday, former FBI director James Comey testified in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding the details of his relationship with Trump. Though the viewership numbers haven’t been released yet, some are projecting it to be the most watched political event since the Watergate hearings of 1973. With an estimated eighteen percent of the American population watching, this was a monumental moment in modern history. What makes this all so surprising is that Comey is really no one’s hero. He is hard to understand, because he is not aligned with one party or another. Each side has taken their shots at him in the last year, depending on which case he was working on and whom he supported. In a matter of months, James Comey’s long career in law ended abruptly, when he found out from a news broadcast that he had been fired. His turbulent year and sudden public firing tell us something concerning about our culture: we determined whether Comey was acting justly based on whether he was treating our side favorably.
One year ago, few Americans could have named the FBI director; today there is hardly an American who couldn’t. The year leading up to Comey’s dismissal has been intensely polarizing, a good example of the fragmentation of American politics. Within an hour of the conclusion of Thursday’s hearing, I already saw conservatives and liberals claiming on social media that Comey’s testimony had vindicated them. In his opening monologue on Thursday, Sean Hannity called Comey a “partisan” and a “political hack,” since he had chosen not to corroborate Trump’s claims that he had not asked Comey to stop FBI investigations. “Why did he only say this today? Why couldn’t the FBI director have come out sooner?”
Some articles claimed that the hearing was about Trump getting what was coming to him, while other articles insisted the most important revelation was on the alleged interference of the Obama campaign in the Clinton email case.
Comey is a figure in which both sides have found an ally and an enemy, and that has made him incredibly complicated to follow, since many of the prevalent political stereotypes do not accurately describe him. In order to begin to understand who Comey is, we need to look back to mid-2016. On July 5, Comey publicly announced that the FBI would not be pursuing charges against Hillary Clinton for having classified emails on her private server. For many, this would be their first time hearing of Comey. Though he assured that the Bureau would not be pursuing charges, he called Clinton’s behavior “extremely careless.” This was a monumental moment, because the FBI director does not typically have the role of presenting cases to the public; the director is responsible for running the investigation, which the Attorney General would then present to the public. But because of fears of collusion between Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the Clintons (involving the famed Phoenix Tarmac Meeting between Bill Clinton and Lynch), Comey believed that he would be the best person to break the news that Clinton would not be charged. In doing so he stepped into the view of the public, and would stay there until his dismissal by President Trump in May.
Obviously, the decision not to press charges on Clinton was seen as a miscarriage of justice by many on the right, but as an admirable decision by many of her supporters. Public opinion of Comey turned 180 degrees on October 28 of last year, when Comey sent a letter to Congress announcing that the Bureau was reviewing more Clinton emails. This won him the praise of Trump, who declared his “great respect” for him. Thirteen days later, Clinton lost the presidential race to Trump, and many would claim that Comey had intentionally chosen to mention the renewal of the investigation into Clinton’s emails in order to disrupt the election. In December, Comey was accused of withholding information on the Russian meddling in the election in order to bolster Trump’s chances.
But his newfound conservative favor would be short-lived when he and Trump began to battle over loyalties. As Trump tried to gain Comey’s loyalty, it became more and more apparent that the two would not work well together. Comey made several unorthodox decisions in his time as director of the FBI, most notably announcing a reopening of the Clinton email case just two weeks before the election (standard practice is to tread lightly on such announcements within sixty days of an election). To defend these unusual choices, Comey claimed that he was trying to operate in a way that would preserve a level of trust in the American justice system.
Those who try to do the right thing often make enemies of both sides, and it is possible that this has been Comey’s fate. Comey tried to walk a middle ground, largely obscuring his personal views throughout his time in the public spotlight. When questioned about his involvement in the Clinton email and Trump-Russia scandals, he gave answers that at times condemned and exonerated Trump, Clinton, and Lynn. In the coming months, we will likely gain a deeper understanding of how Comey truly acted over the course of the last year. We know now that his bad relationship with Trump caused his termination, but many of his other relationships are harder to understand. Why didn’t he prosecute Hillary? Why did he allow Attorney General Loretta Lynn to downplay the severity of the Clinton investigations? These questions linger, and we must hear the truth on them before we can make an informed judgement of Comey’s character.
For now, we have to remember that God is sovereign, and any missteps made by Comey during the election were ordained ahead of time. This story is not as simple as picking either Trump or Clinton as the hero, and then judging Comey based on how he treated them. It can be tempting for us to stand so opposed to Hillary that we find ourselves preemptively siding with Trump in most controversies. Hillary’s email scandal was at the very least wildly irresponsible, if not criminal. Conservatives took no issue with that investigation, and Trump even praised Comey for it. When the tables turned and the FBI began investigating the Trump administration’s ties to Russia, Comey lost his conservative fans but gained liberal ones. We need to frequently remind ourselves that justice is a paramount principle in our faith, and we should support it even when it hurts people that we may support. We can (and I think should) be grateful that Hillary lost, but we must not blindly support Trump simply because he’s not Clinton. Whichever way justice swings, we should be there to support it. We should not seek for the FBI director to be an ally or an enemy, but should pray for him to be just. That is the only criterion we should expect Comey to meet, and in the coming months I think we’ll know for sure.