In Miguel de Cervantes’ classic 17th century work, Don Quixote, the eponymous character becomes enamored with the concept of chivalry. Believing that chivalry was dead and in need of rehabilitation, Quixote assumes he is the last chivalrous man alive. Thus, he resolves to single-handedly revive chivalry and bring justice to all.
Of course, as the reader soon discovers—spoiler alert!—Quixote is insane. In Quixote’s self-imposed quest to revive chivalry, he often confuses his arrogant urge to feed his ego with a desire to do good. Quixote is also delusional and often suffers from impaired judgment; as he prefers to view the world according to the dictates of his delusions rather than from within the confines of reality. Hilarious adventures ensue.
The characteristics that make Don Quixote such a great fictional character are terrible traits to have in a director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. With James Comey, the United States had a Don Quixote-like character running the FBI.
After all, Comey was a quixotic individual who was so wrapped up in his own delusions about being the “last honest man in Washington, D.C.,” that he brought professional ruin to himself and likely damaged the reputation of the FBI.
Comey was a federal prosecutor for many years (having famously taken down Martha Stewart on trumped up insider trading charges that later resulted in a conviction for “obstruction of justice” and making false statements under oath). Comey soon became the deputy attorney general during the George W. Bush Administration, serving under former Attorney General John Ashcroft. Despite being a lifelong registered Republican, Comey’s allegiance was with neither the Bush Administration nor the GOP. Comey’s allegiance wasn’t to the Truth, either―whatever his rumored reputation may be. Like Don Quixote’s dedication to his perception of chivalry, Comey’s dedication was to his own definition of Truth (which was ultimately self-serving).
align=”left” The characteristics that make Don Quixote such a great fictional character are terrible traits to have in a director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. With James Comey, the United States had a Don Quixote-like character running the FBI.
First, as deputy attorney general, Comey selected federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to lead the independent investigation of the Valerie Plame scandal.
Here’s how Peter Baker described Comey’s role in the Plame investigation:
John Ashcroft [the Attorney General] recused himself from the CIA leak case because Karl Rove [senior Bush adviser] used to work for him, so the matter had fallen to his deputy attorney general, James Comey. In turn, Comey had decided to turn it [the investigation] over to a special prosecutor. On December 30, he announced that Patrick Fitzgerald [a] close friend, would lead the investigation of the White House.
Swamp creatures always stick together.
By selecting his friend as special prosecutor, Comey was setting up the Bush Administration (whether he meant to or not is irrelevant) for destruction. Fitzgerald was the lead federal prosecutor in Chicago. Not only was he obsessed with his conviction rate, he was also dogmatic in his belief that if he was investigating someone, they were guilty. As Baker details, after a particularly contentious interview with Vice President Dick Cheney, Fitzgerald became obsessed with indicting someone high up in the Bush Administration. Cheney was his target, but in the process, he ended up forcing Karl Rove out and, more damagingly, destroying the man described as “Cheney’s-Cheney,” I. “Scooter” Libby. But, all that mattered was that Fitzgerald passed the James Comey “honesty” and “moral rigidity” test!
Comey, the ultimate Washington insider, was not finished forcing the Bush Administration to conform to his own absurd standards. In 2005, the Bush Administration’s warrantless surveillance program was up for reauthorization. Basically, the program was so controversial (even within the Bush Administration), that the DOJ had to get monthly presidential reauthorization allowing for the continuation of the program. Both Bush and Cheney firmly believed that the program was a vital tool in the War on Terror.
align=”right” Yet again, Comey’s view of himself as the “last honest man” in government was reaffirmed. However, the Democrats would soon discover how unreliable and quixotic Comey was.
The reauthorization process was usually a matter of course. However, personnel changes in the DOJ’s Department of Legal Counsel began a major debate between the Bush DOJ lawyers and the White House. Unfortunately for the White House, Attorney General Ashcroft was hospitalized with a bout of pancreatitis. Yet again, his number two, the incorruptible Don Comey, took umbrage with the White House.
Being in command of the DOJ for a very short period, Comey upended administration policy by refusing to reauthorize the program without significant changes. Irrespective of one’s opinion on the warrantless surveillance program, the fact remains that it was not up to Comey to alter Administration policy in fundamental ways. If he (and others in the Administration) were so concerned, they should have aired their grievances through proper channels.
Ultimately, Comey resigned—and ran to the Democrats in Congress to testify about the administration’s alleged missteps. His quixotic tale doesn’t end there, of course. President Barack Obama would name Comey as his FBI Director in 2013. Here’s what the New York Times had to say about his nomination at the time:
By choosing Mr. Comey, a Republican, Mr. Obama made a strong statement about bipartisanship at a time when he faces renewed criticism from Republicans in Congress and has had difficulty winning confirmation of some important nominees. At the same time, Mr. Comey’s role in one of the most dramatic episodes of the Bush administration—in which he refused to acquiesce to White House aides and reauthorize a program for eavesdropping without warrants when he was serving as acting attorney general—should make him an acceptable choice to Democrats.
Yet again, Comey’s view of himself as the “last honest man” in government was reaffirmed. However, the Democrats would soon discover how unreliable and quixotic Comey was. And, shortly thereafter, the Republicans would be reminded of Comey’s haplessness also.
Comey clearly missed the memo that as FBI director his role was no longer prosecutorial, rather, he was the nation’s top investigator. But, Comey’s ego—like Don Quixote—needed to be fed. Like Quixote, Comey did not view it as his ego compelling him onward, rather, it was his selflessness. This is why he took to the cameras to detail the purported crimes of Hillary Clinton and assert that “Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.”
Not long after that press conference, he would return to the cameras to insist that he was reopening the investigation into Clinton. Clearly, Don Comey needed to rush to the defense of our ailing republic, and become the grand referee in the psychodrama that was the 2016 Presidential election. And as no one ever asked Don Quixote to take upon himself the role of reviving chivalry, no one ever asked James Comey to become the arbiter of the 2016 election.
Comey was “mildly nauseous” about his public pressers having negatively influenced the chances of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This is akin to when Don Quixote finally realized that his goal of returning chivalry to the world had the opposite of its intended effect. The reason? Delusional people delude themselves into believing they are beyond reproach. When Quixote did it, we laughed, because it makes for great fiction. When Comey did it, we were all mortified, because it was a grotesque misuse of his power.
Egoists like Comey exist throughout the federal bureaucracy. Given enough power, they become a threat to everyone. In this way, the elite should support Trump’s calls to “drain the swamp.” Comey is the epitome of a swamp creature. Comey’s allegiance was only to himself. Comey cared little for the truth (if he had, Clinton would be on trial right now). Instead, Comey wanted to be the country’s chief moralizer.
The FBI does not need another Don Quixote as its director. It also does not need either a politician or a lawyer as its next head. But, it must get someone who is untarnished by the partisan miasma that dominates the upper levels of the bureaucracy. It needs someone who is an objective investigator with years of experience in the FBI. In short, the FBI needs an FBI agent to lead it. The Trump Administration would do well to dig deep into the FBI’s ranks and find some new blood; someone at the Assistant Special Agent in Charge (ASAC) or the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) level.
The FBI needs real leadership, not political hackery or faux moralizing imposed from on high.