Former FBI Director Jim Comey’s decision to “leak” (a word which itself has generated controversy in this connection) the contents of his memos of conversations with President Donald Trump to the New York Times has led to much pontificating, but indulge me while I engage in a little more. My interest focuses on the question of why Comey chose to make his revelations first to the media, rather than to Congress.
Much of the commentary seems designed to attack Comey’s credibility by demonstrating that the disclosure to the Times was illegal or improper or, conversely, to bolster his credibility and undermine his critics by arguing the opposite. But the legal and ethical questions surrounding the “leak” (last time in quotes, I promise) are sufficiently murky that their relevance to the believability of Comey’s underlying testimony (particularly if that testimony is supported by contemporaneous memoranda) seems somewhat tangential. Frankly, under the circumstances I can understand how Comey would have been sorely tempted to bend the rules regarding disclosure if that were the only way to get his side of the story out.
Put yourself in Comey’s shoes. It is May 9, 2017, and you have just received a letter from President Trump, along with two enclosures, a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a memorandum from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The Rosenstein memo explains that you made “serious mistakes” in your handling of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s emails, as a result of which “the FBI’s reputation and credibility have suffered substantial damage” and “the entire Department of Justice” has been affected. The memo, while not quite explicitly recommending you be fired, concludes by saying “the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a Director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them.”
The one paragraph letter from Attorney General Sessions to President Trump recommends that Trump remove you as FBI director. Sessions explains that “[b]ased on my evaluation, and for the reasons expressed by the Deputy Attorney General in the attached memorandum, I have concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI.”
Last but not least, Trump’s own letter informs you that he is accepting the “recommendation” of the attorney general and deputy attorney general, and “you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.” The president goes on to elaborate (graciously, he no doubt thinks): “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”
For purposes of discussion, we will assume you are well aware that many, many people have criticized your handling of the Clinton email investigation, and not a few of those have urged you be removed as FBI director. But you believe that this is not at all why Trump decided to fire you. And you have the evidence to prove it, in the form of contemporaneous memoranda recording a series of meetings and telephone discussions with the president over the past 5 months. These documents show (at least in your view) that Trump fired you because of your handling of the Russia investigation, including the failure to show adequate personal loyalty to Trump in the conduct of that investigation, the failure to “let go” of an inquiry into certain activities of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and your unwillingness or inability to “lift the cloud” which the Russian investigation had cast over the Trump administration.
I think you can understand that anyone in this situation would feel impelled to come forward and bring these memos to the attention of the public and the proper authorities. What I find more difficult to explain is why Comey thought it necessary to have a friend anonymously leak the story to the New York Times, when he could have simply informed the relevant congressional committees, including the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, that he was in possession of the memos and prepared to testify about their contents.
There are situations where press coverage is needed to attract public and congressional attention to a particular issue, but this was certainly not one of those. Even Michael Schmidt, the New York Times reporter who first wrote about the Comey memos, acknowledged as much on the day Comey was to testify before SSCI:
Q. Has Comey been called to testify in front of the Senate today because of your reporting?
Schmidt. It was certainly a catalyst, but Comey was going to have to go up there at some point and they were going to want to hear from him.
N.Y. Times Podcast, The Daily, 6-8-17 at 9:08.
With this background, let’s look at the legal and ethical issues raised by Comey’s leak to the Times.