Skip to main content

James Comey has an image problem. He’s being depicted as wearing a halo, as having a God complex. He can’t get enough of the limelight. He paints Donald Trump – and who can doubt it? – as a florid narcissist. But it takes one to know one, critics say. The comely Mr. Comey is a mirror-lover himself.

Everything is inflated about the former FBI director. There’s his towering, basketball-playerish height. And there’s his extraordinary love of microphones. While most FBI directors tend to stay in the background, Mr. Comey did end-runs around his then-attorney-general Loretta Lynch to get before the cameras.

There’s his newly published book, which is full of fire and fury itself. It’s called A Higher Loyalty. A fitting subtitle, a wag suggested, might well be: To My Own Interests.

There’s been the Comey passion for exceeding his own mandate. Being head of the FBI wasn’t power enough. So he took to politicizing the law-enforcement agency.

He is credited – or discredited, depending on one’s political stripe – with bringing down would-be president Hillary Clinton with his late campaign call for a renewed investigation into her e-mail usage. Ever since, he’s been in the process of trying to take down the actual President. Not bad for a gumshoe.

But because he comes across as the ultimate self-aggrandizer, as so self-righteous, the effectiveness of Mr. Comey in goring Mr. Trump and thus realizing the hopes of so many is limited. He has performed a rare feat in a country as politically tribalized as the United States. He finds himself loathed by both Republicans and Democrats. As accurate and as warranted as his condemnations of the President might be, neither party wants to listen.

In Mr. Comey’s book and book-promotion interviews, what is striking is that in going after Ms. Clinton in the campaign’s final stage, he concedes that politics infiltrated his thinking. “… I was operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump, and so I’m sure that it was a factor.”

Mr. Comey has been criticized for this, and in an interview with The Globe and Mail published on Tuesday, he shies away from such an admission. His critical failure was to not even bother, having discovered the existence of new Clinton e-mails, to check to see if there was anything relevant in them.

In The Globe interview, he says maybe that would have been the better course, one that another FBI director may have chosen. As it turned out, the e-mails were checked and nothing of significance was found. By the time he revealed this, the damage was done. He had sent shock waves through the campaign, for no good reason.

Mr. Comey had angered Republicans earlier in recommending no criminal charges against Ms. Clinton for her handling of classified information while she was secretary of state. What seems apparent is that by announcing a new investigation, he was trying to perform a political balancing act to appease Republicans accusing him of bias. Postcampaign, given that the GOP won, it’s like he’s wanted to even the score again by levelling the charges – “morally unfit for office” and the like – against Mr. Trump, who in turn is calling him a “slime ball,” along with some choice adjectives.

While both parties are down on Mr. Comey, many in the media are turned off by his holier-than-thou act. The news cycle, supercharged under Mr. Trump, will shortly move beyond the uproar detonated by his book. Another book that caused a sensation in this town, Fire and Fury, had little impact in the polls. Nor is this one likely to.

Mr. Comey is correct to warn of the dangers of a President who is prepared to exceed his authority by acting above the law. He should know well about that kind of thing, having politicized his office to the degree he did.

He isn’t the only law-enforcement chief to do so. In Canada, we witnessed the dangers of the national police force going that route. In the 2006 election, the Paul Martin Liberals were leading in the polls about four weeks before election day when the RCMP dropped a bombshell, announcing a criminal investigation of them in respect to a news leak of a federal tax change for income trusts. The momentum suddenly turned and within days the Conservatives were on their way to victory. Former Mountie commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli had developed close relations with Jean Chrétien but not with Mr. Martin, Mr. Chrétien’s bitter rival. The suspicion among many Liberals was that Zack, as he was called, was out to get Mr. Martin.

Following the election, Mr. Zaccardelli was forced to resign due to his mishandling of the Maher Arar file. He went away quietly. Mr. Comey has chosen another path. His halo won’t allow him to do otherwise.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe