A report from the inspector general of the Department of Justice about James Comey’s handling of classified documents detailing his conversations with Donald Trump gave Comey what amounted to a sharp verbal reprimand. Conservatives had hoped the report would discredit the former FBI director and perhaps lead to his incarceration. Here’s how the New York Times — beneficiaries of one key leak that led to the probe — characterized the findings:
The Justice Department inspector general released on Thursday a report that was highly critical of the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey’s handling of memos detailing his interactions with the president, accusing him of setting “a dangerous example” for officials with access to government secrets.
The findings were the result of a lengthy investigation by Michael E. Horowitz, the inspector general, who examined whether Mr. Comey had acted inappropriately when he gave one of the memos to a confidant who later provided its contents to The New York Times. Mr. Comey has said he helped make the information public in part to bring about the appointment of a special counsel.
“Comey violated F.B.I. policy and the requirements of his F.B.I. employment agreement when he chose this path,” the report said.
But because there was no intent to break laws, the report suggests, the DOJ decided against prosecuting Comey.
It’s one of those situations that invites spin over the meaning of the report. The president and his allies are sure to gloat over the report’s criticism of Comey, who has emerged as a bitter Trump critic as well as a devil figure for conservative conspiracy theorists who claim an elaborate deep state effort, centered in the FBI, to prevent Trump’s election and then obstruct his agenda. Shortly before the OIG report’s release, the president’s favorite talking head, Sean Hannity, predicted big trouble for Comey:
[W]e’re also being told that the report … has referred Comey for federal prosecution for stealing government documents, leaking confidential government memos that detailed conversations with the president a clear violation of the Espionage Act.”
That’s technically accurate, but the referral was definitely in the past, and led to the decision not to prosecute, which Comey himself is treating as a vindication:
In the short term, what probably matters is that the rebuke of Comey will provide what Axios calls “jet fuel for President Trump and allies determined to aggressively investigate the intelligence community’s conduct.” One of the president’s top congressional allies and the ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee, Jim Jordan, offered this immediate reaction:
Today’s report is a disappointing reminder that the former FBI Director put partisanship and personal ambition over patriotism and his legal obligations to the American people. By leaking his confidential communications with the President in an attempt to save face in the wake of his firing, Mr. Comey believed he was above the rules of the DOJ.
You can expect that conclusion to broaden into a more general condemnation of alleged Trump enemies in federal law enforcement. Stay tuned to the president’s Twitter account to see how broad and deep and loud this use of the report will become.