Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

James Comey and the ‘Hillary standard’

FBI Director James Comey and Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, testify before the House Intelligence Commitee Monday.

Andrew Angerer/Getty Images

FBI Director James Comey, left, and Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, testify before the House Intelligence Commitee Monday.

Who did more to hurt Hillary Clinton’s quest to become president and help Donald Trump’s — Vladimir Putin or FBI director James Comey?

That question looms over Comey, as he confirmed Monday an FBI investigation into possible interference in the 2016 elections by the Russians — including “any links between the individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government.”

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It was unusual, said Comey, for the FBI to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. But in this case, he said, it’s in the public interest to do so. Yet Comey also told members of the House Intelligence Committee he couldn’t provide any details of the ongoing investigation, because “we need to protect people’s privacy.”

Compare that with the FBI’s “Hillary standard.’’ Last July, Comey called a news conference to announce the agency was not prosecuting Clinton over her handling of some classified e-mails while she was secretary of state. Without indicting her, Comey still laid out specific details of the investigation and described Clinton’s behavior as “extremely careless.” Then, 11 days before the election, Comey sent a bombshell letter to Congress saying the FBI was looking into newly discovered e-mails that might cause the agency to reopen the case. Three days before the election, he sent a never-mind letter, saying the case would remain closed.

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With those actions, Comey might have influenced the 2016 election outcome as much as any information hacked into by the Russians and subsequently released by WikiLeaks.

Perhaps trying to get his mojo back as a straight shooter, Comey did Donald Trump no favors during Monday’s hearing. He confirmed the FBI investigation into possible links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government and said release of Trump’s tax returns might be helpful in showing those links. He said the investigation began last July, which is also when Trump said at a news conference, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.” The then-presidential candidate went on to say, “They probably have them. I’d like to have them released.”

Comey also said the FBI had “no information” to support Trump’s assertions that former President Obama wiretapped him. Meanwhile, Comey said there is evidence of a break-in of the Democratic National Committee by “a foreign power using cyber means” and identified the foreign power as Russia. Comey also said Putin developed “a clear preference” for Trump to win the election because “he hated Secretary Clinton so much.” He helpfully recalled that Putin preferred business leaders because “he believes they’re people more open to negotiation and easier to deal with.” As summer went on, and polls predicted Clinton as the ultimate victor, the Russians sought “to undermine” the Clinton campaign, said Comey. Some might argue: So did the FBI.

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As Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said in response to Comey’s statements before the House committee: “In refusing to discuss an ongoing investigation, Director Comey is appropriately adhering to the Justice Department’s standards. The question he has never satisfactorily answered is why he deviated from those standards so egregiously in Hillary Clinton’s case.”

Comey told the House committee the FBI will approach this current investigation in an “open-minded, independent way” and follow the facts, whereever they lead. If those facts lead to a decision against prosecution, will there be another Comey press conference, announcing no indictment, but calling out Trump and associates for “careless behavior”? That’s the “Hillary standard” Comey inserted into the 2016 campaign.

House Republicans tried to turn the hearing into an attack on the leaking of classified information to the press. That’s because they understand the political damage caused by a long, drawn-out FBI investigation, fanned by tweets and cable TV. And so does Comey.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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