The testimony of James Comey proved long on atmospherics and short on ethics. While many were riveted by Comey’s discussion of his discomfort in meetings with President Trump, most seemed to miss the fact that Comey was describing his own conduct in strikingly unethical terms. The greatest irony is that Trump succeeded in baiting Comey to a degree that even Trump could not have imagined. After calling Comey a “showboat” and poor director, Comey proceeded to commit an unethical and unprofessional act in leaking damaging memos against Trump.
Comey described a series of ethical challenges during his term as FBI director. Yet, he almost uniformly avoided taking a firm stand in support of the professional standards of the FBI. During the Obama administration, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave Comey a direct order to mislead the public by calling the ongoing investigation a mere “matter.” Rather than standing firm on the integrity of his department and refusing to adopt such a meaningless and misleading term, Comey yielded to Lynch while now claiming discomfort over carrying out the order.
When Trump allegedly asked for Comey to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn or pledge loyalty, Comey did not tell the president that he was engaging in wildly inappropriate conduct. He instead wrote a memo to file and told close aides. He now says that he wishes he had the courage or foresight to have taken a stand with the president.
However, the clearest violation came in the days following his termination. Comey admits that he gave the damaging memos to a friend at Columbia Law School with the full knowledge that the information would be given to the media. It was a particularly curious moment for a former director who was asked by the president to fight the leakers in the government. He proceeded in becoming one of the most consequential leakers against Trump.
Comey said that he took these actions days after his termination, when he said that he woke up in the middle of the night and realized suddenly that the memos could be used to contradict Trump. It was a bizarrely casual treatment of material that would be viewed by many as clearly FBI information. He did not confer with the FBI or the Justice Department. He did not ask for any classification review despite one of the parties described being the president of the United States. He simply sent the memos to a law professor to serve as a conduit to the media.
As a threshold matter, Comey asked a question with regard to Trump that he should now answer with regard to his own conduct. Comey asked why Trump would ask everyone to leave the Oval Office to speak with Comey unless he was doing something improper. Yet, Trump could ask why Comey would use a third party to leak these memos if they were his property and there was nothing improper in their public release.
In fact, there was a great deal wrong with their release, and Comey likely knew it. These were documents prepared on an FBI computer addressing a highly sensitive investigation on facts that he considered material to that investigation. Indeed, he conveyed that information confidentially to his top aides and later said that he wanted the information to be given to the special counsel because it was important to the investigation.
Many in the media have tried to spin this as not a “leak” because leaks by definition only involve classified information. That is entirely untrue as shown by history. Leaks involve the release of unauthorized information — not only classified information. Many of the most important leaks historically have involved pictures and facts not classified but embarrassing to a government. More importantly, federal regulations refer to unauthorized disclosures not just classified information.
Comey’s position would effectively gut a host of federal rules and regulations. He is suggesting that any federal employee effectively owns documents created during federal employment in relation to an ongoing investigation so long as they address the information to themselves. FBI agents routinely write such memos in investigations. They are called 302s to memorialize field interviews or fact acquisitions. They are treated as FBI information.
The Justice Department routinely claims such memos as privileged and covered by the deliberative process privilege and other privileges. Indeed, if this information were sought under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) it would likely have been denied. Among other things, the Justice Department and FBI routinely claim privilege “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.”
Of course, Comey did not know if there was a privilege or classification claim by either the Justice Department or the White House because he never asked for review. He just woke up in the middle of night upset about Trump’s name calling and released the damaging information. In doing so, he used these memos not as a shield but a sword.
Besides being subject to nondisclosure agreements, Comey falls under federal laws governing the disclosure of classified and unclassified information. Assuming that the memos were not classified (though it seems odd that it would not be classified even on the confidential level), there is 18 U.S.C. § 641, which makes it a crime to steal, sell, or convey “any record, voucher, money, or thing of value of the United States or of any department or agency thereof.”
There are also ethical and departmental rules against the use of material to damage a former represented person or individual or firm related to prior representation. The FBI website warns employees that “dissemination of FBI information is made strictly in accordance with provisions of the Privacy Act; Title 5, United States Code, Section 552a; FBI policy and procedures regarding discretionary release of information in accordance with the Privacy Act; and other applicable federal orders and directives.”
One such regulation is § 2635.703, on the use of nonpublic information, which states, “An employee shall not engage in a financial transaction using nonpublic information, nor allow the improper use of nonpublic information to further his own private interest or that of another, whether through advice or recommendation, or by knowing unauthorized disclosure.”
The standard FBI employment agreement bars the unauthorized disclosure of information “contained in the files, electronic or paper, of the FBI” that impact the bureau and specifically pledges that “I will not reveal, by any means, any information or material from or related to FBI files or any other information acquired by virtue of my official employment to any unauthorized recipient without prior official written authorization by the FBI.”
Had Comey taken the minimal step of seeking clearance, the department would likely have said that this was FBI information and not personal information. Comey instead decided to ask forgiveness rather than permission.
Comey is also subject to bar rules on releasing information inimical to the interests of his former employer. For example, under professional rule 1.6, lawyers need to secure authority to release information that “(1) reveal a confidence or secret of the lawyer’s client; (2) use a confidence or secret of the lawyer’s client to the disadvantage of the client; [or] (3) use a confidence or secret of the lawyer’s client for the advantage of the lawyer or of a third person.”
Comey actually showed both how to and how not to disclose such information. When Comey released the information, he knew that he was going to be called to Congress where he could disclose this information properly after giving the White House a chance to claim privilege. Instead, he decided to release the information early. Why?
Comey gave two equally implausible explanations. First, he suggested that he wanted to get the information to investigators. However, he knew not only that he was likely to testify but that these memos would inevitably be demanded by both congressional and federal investigators. Second, he said that he wanted to ensure the appointment of a special counsel. However on that Monday, many of us were saying that such an appointment was virtually inevitable. More importantly, he could have given the memos to investigators and properly laid the foundation for a special counsel.
The fact is that the leaking of the memos worked to the advantage of James Comey, not Robert Mueller. Comey was able to take over the narrative and news cycle after Trump had publicly belittled him and his record. Special counsels do not like leaks of this kind. It would have been far better for the special counsel (or Comey’s own former investigatory team and congressional investigators) to have the memos confidentially.
The greatest value of the memos would be to question Trump and other potential targets without their knowing of their existence. The memos could then have been used to establish false statements and pressure cooperation. Instead, Comey told possible targets, including Trump, about the evidence against them in the memos.
Donald Trump continues to show a remarkable ability to bring out the worst in people — supporters and critics alike. In this case, he was able to bait Comey with his tweets and cause Comey to diminish his own credibility. If the comments of Trump were grossly inappropriate, Comey’s response to those comments were equally inappropriate.