It is tempting for normal people to ignore our president when he starts ranting about treason and corruption at the FBI. I understand the temptation. I’m the object of many of his rants, and even I try to ignore him.
But we shouldn’t, because millions of good people believe what a president of the United States says. In normal times, that’s healthy. But not now, when the president is a liar who doesn’t care what damage he does to vital institutions. We must call out his lies that the FBI was corrupt and committed treason, that we spied on the Trump campaign, and tried to defeat Donald Trump. We must constantly return to the stubborn facts.
Russia engaged in a massive effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Near as I can tell, there is only one U.S. leader who still denies that fact. The FBI saw the attack starting in mid-June 2016, with the first dumping of stolen emails. In late July, when we were hard at work trying to understand the scope of the effort, we learned that one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers knew about the Russian effort seven weeks before we did.
In April 2016, that adviser talked to a Russian agent in London, learned that the Russians had obtained “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails, and that the Russians could assist the Trump campaign through the anonymous release of information damaging to Clinton. Of course, nobody from the Trump campaign told us this (or about later Russian approaches); we had to learn it, months after the fact, from an allied ambassador.
But when we finally learned of it in late July, what should the FBI have done? Let it go? Go tell the Trump campaign? Tell the press? No. Investigate, to see what the facts were. We didn’t know what was true. Maybe there was nothing to it, or maybe Americans were actively conspiring with the Russians. To find out, the FBI would live up to its name and investigate.
As director, I was determined that the work would be done carefully, professionally and discretely. We were just starting. If there was nothing to it, we didn’t want to smear Americans. If there was something to it, we didn’t want to let corrupt Americans know we were on to them. So, we kept it secret. That’s how the FBI approaches all counterintelligence cases.
And there’s the first problem with Trump’s whole “treason” narrative. If we were “deep state” Clinton loyalists bent on stopping him, why would we keep it secret? Why wouldn’t the much-maligned FBI supervisor Peter Strzok — the alleged kingpin of the “treasonous” plot to stop Trump — tell anyone? He was one of the very few people who knew what we were investigating.
We investigated. We didn’t gather information about the campaign’s strategy. We didn’t “spy” on anyone’s campaign. We investigated to see whether it was true that Americans associated with the campaign had taken the Russians up on any offer of help. By late October, the investigators thought they had probable cause to get a federal court order to conduct electronic surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser named Carter Page. Page was no longer with the campaign, but there was reason to believe he was acting as an agent of the Russian government. We asked a federal judge for permission to surveil him and then we did it, all without revealing our work, despite the fact that it was late October and a leak would have been very harmful to candidate Trump. Worst deep-state conspiracy ever.
But wait, the conspiracy idea gets dumber. On Oct. 28, after agonizing deliberation over two terrible options, I concluded I had no choice but to inform Congress that we had reopened the Clinton email investigation. I judged that hiding that fact — after having told Congress repeatedly and under oath that the case was finished — would be worse than telling Congress the truth. It was a decision William Barr praised and Hillary Clinton blamed for her loss 11 days later. Strzok, alleged architect of the treasonous plot to stop Trump, drafted the letter I sent Congress.
And there’s still more to the dumbness of the conspiracy allegation. At the center of the alleged FBI “corruption” we hear so much about was the conclusion that Deputy Director Andrew McCabe lied to internal investigators about a disclosure to the press in late October 2016. McCabe was fired over it. And what was that disclosure? Some stop-Trump election-eve screed? No. McCabe authorized a disclosure that revealed the FBI was actively investigating the Clinton Foundation, a disclosure that was harmful to Clinton.
There is a reason the non-fringe media doesn’t spend much time on this “treason” and “corruption” business. The conspiracy theory makes no sense. The FBI wasn’t out to get Donald Trump. It also wasn’t out to get Hillary Clinton. It was out to do its best to investigate serious matters while walking through a vicious political minefield.
But go ahead, investigate the investigators, if you must. When those investigations are over, they will find there was no corruption. There was no treason. There was no attempted coup. Those are lies, and dumb lies at that. There were just good people trying to figure out what was true, under unprecedented circumstances.
James Comey is a former director of the FBI and a former deputy attorney general. This op-ed originally appeared in The Washington Post.