James Comey really messed up.
The FBI director did not commit some garden-variety mistake. This is not an “oops” moment. For reasons that have more to do with protecting himself from dishonest Republican attacks, Comey committed an overtly egregious and political act that roiled the nation’s politics 11 days before Election Day — and undermined public trust in the nation’s criminal justice institutions.
And he needs to go.
When word broke Friday afternoon that Comey had notified Congress that he was taking a new look at Hillary Clinton’s apparently never-ending e-mail issue, it seemed like a bombshell moment.
But it is now increasingly clear that Comey was holding a dud. What he did know is that e-mails from Clinton’s assistant, Huma Abedin, had been found on the computer of her estranged husband, Anthony Weiner. The problem is, that’s all he knew. There was no evidence that the e-mails were from Clinton, contained classified material, or had any investigative value.
No one at the FBI had even looked at the e-mails, because the agency didn’t have a search warrant to examine them.
The paucity of new information is bad enough, but what’s most troubling about this episode is that Comey violated a long-standing Justice Department precedent discouraging action on a criminal investigation 60 days before an election, because such disclosures risk undermining the political process.
Why didn’t Comey wait until after the election to tell Congress — or at least wait until agents had a chance to review the e-mails? The answer, unfortunately, has everything to do with Comey and little to do with what’s good for the country.
As best that can be gleaned from the now torrent of leaks emanating from FBI headquarters, Comey was concerned that news about the e-mails would become public, which might lead to accusations from Republicans that the FBI was covering up evidence of wrongdoing by Clinton.
Ironically, we know now that FBI agents have been aware of the e-mails for weeks — and yet, somehow, the information didn’t leak out. But for Comey that was too big a personal risk to take.
While some Democratic partisans would like to believe that Comey, a Republican, is trying to tip the election to Trump, in reality the answer is more clear-cut: He’s covering his own posterior.
All of this began back in July, at Comey’s now fateful press conference in which he personally announced that there would be no prosecution of Clinton — even though the decision to prosecute was not his to make. That was bad enough, but then he made matters far worse by editorializing about the case.
Comey’s dubious description at the time — of Clinton’s handling of classified information as “extremely careless” — was prejudicial and inappropriate. But what makes it worse is that he did this, almost certainly, to inoculate himself and the FBI from inevitable GOP attacks asserting that he was not recommending charges against Clinton for political reasons. It speaks to how harmful the GOP’s assertions of an FBI cover-up have been, but that is no defense. Comey has a responsibility to ignore politics in this case. Instead he’s allowed it to dictate his actions.
Now he has doubled down with this latest abuse of power and, in the process, cast undue — and unfair — suspicion on Clinton.
Perversely, he’s even harmed Trump. If this last minute intervention were perceived to tip the election to Trump, he would enter office under a permanent stain, and the sense among millions of Americans that the FBI put its finger on the scale to help him win.
But the biggest loser here is the credibility of the FBI and the Department of Justice — and the American people’s confidence in both institutions. Indeed, the Clinton campaign has now launched a full-scale attack on Comey — one which follows on the heels of Trump’s months of erroneous and dishonest attacks against him for not prosecuting Clinton. Comey has cast a cloud over this interminable election. His actions run the very real risk of affecting its outcome.
Whatever the result on Election Day, Comey’s path forward is clearer.
He can’t un-ring the bill, since any step to clean up the damage could lead Republicans to believe a cover-up is afoot.
Having fundamentally undermined confidence in the justice system — and abused his power as FBI director — the only way he can repair it is by resigning his office.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.