James Comey: The F.B.I. Can Do This
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The F.B.I. is back in the middle of it. When we were handed the Hillary Clinton email investigation in 2015, the bureau’s deputy director said to me, “You know you are totally screwed, right?” He meant that, in a viciously polarized political environment, one side was sure to be furious with the outcome. Sure enough, I saw a tweet declaring me “a political hack,” although the author added, tongue in cheek: “I just can’t figure out which side.”
And those were the good old days. President Trump’s decision to order a one-week investigation into sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, his Supreme Court nominee, comes in a time of almost indescribable pain and anger, lies and attacks.
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. 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. We live in a world where the president is an accused serial abuser of women, who was caught on tape bragging about his ability to assault women and now likens the accusations against his nominee to the many “false” accusations against him.
Most disturbingly, we live in a world where millions of Republicans and their representatives think nearly everything in the previous paragraph is O.K.
In that world, the F.B.I. 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.
If truth were the only goal, there would be no clock, and the investigation wouldn’t have been sought after the Senate Judiciary Committee already endorsed the nominee. 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.
Although the process is deeply flawed, and apparently designed to thwart the fact-gathering process, the F.B.I. is up for this. It’s not as hard as Republicans hope it will be.
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.
They will confront people with testimony and other accounts, testing them and pushing them in a professional way. Agents have much better nonsense detectors than partisans, because they aren’t starting with a conclusion.
Yes, the alleged incident occurred 36 years ago. But F.B.I. agents know time has very little to do with memory. They know every married person remembers the weather on their wedding day, no matter how long ago. Significance drives memory. They also know that little lies point to bigger lies. They know that obvious lies by the nominee about the meaning of words in a yearbook are a flashing signal to dig deeper.
Once they start interviewing, every witness knows the consequences. It is one thing to have your lawyer submit a statement on your behalf. It is a very different thing to sit across from two F.B.I. special agents and answer their relentless questions. Of course, the bureau won’t have subpoena power, only the ability to knock on doors and ask questions. But most people will speak to them. Refusal to do so is its own kind of statement.
Agents will summarize every witness encounter in a detailed report called a 302, and then synthesize all the interviews into an executive summary for the White House. Although the F.B.I. won’t reach conclusions, their granular factual presentation will spotlight the areas of conflict and allow decision makers to reach their own conclusions.
It is idiotic to put a shot clock on the F.B.I. But it is better to give professionals seven days to find facts than have no professional investigation at all. When the week is up, one team (and maybe both) will be angry at the F.B.I. The president will condemn the bureau for being a corrupt nest of Clinton-lovers if they turn up bad facts. Maybe Democrats will similarly condemn agents as Trumpists if they don’t. As strange as it sounds, there is freedom in being totally screwed. Agents can just do their work. Find facts. Speak truth to power.
Despite all the lies and all the attacks, there really are people who just want to figure out what’s true. The F.B.I. is full of them.
James Comey is the FIRED F.B.I. director and
author of “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership.”