The New York Times frantically played defense for Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s edition, as her smooth ride to victory encountered some unexpected turbulence in the form of FBI director James Comey’s letter to Congress. The ghost of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover hovered over the front page the day after Halloween, and the lead editorial tut-tutted over “James Comey’s Big Mistake.”
“Comey Role Recalls Hoover’s F.B.I., Fairly or Not,” by Scott Shane and Sharon LaFraniere managed to somewhat refute the comparison – so why put it in a headline on the front page in the first place, if not to help Hillary?
Since President Obama named James B. Comey director of the F.B.I. in 2013, the 6-foot-8 former prosecutor has spoken often of dark chapters in the bureau’s history, notably J. Edgar Hoover’s order to wiretap the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and use the tapes to try to drive the civil rights leader to suicide.
“The reason I do those things,” Mr. Comey said in a talk at Georgetown University last year, “is to ensure that we remember our mistakes and that we learn from them.”
His point: The nation’s leading law enforcement agency must preserve investigations from any taint of political motive or extralegal influence. So it may be especially painful to Mr. Comey that today, after his second sensational public statement on the F.B.I.’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email, some critics and historians are comparing him to Hoover.
The parallels to Hoover, who ran the F.B.I. and its predecessor from 1924 to 1972 as a fief that reflected his personal and political views, may be quite a stretch. People who know Mr. Comey well dismiss out of hand the notion that he acted to tip the election to either Mrs. Clinton or Donald J. Trump. If he is guilty of anything, they say, it may be a sort of moral hubris, a desire to put his rectitude and incorruptibility on public display.
But before Mr. Comey, Hoover was the last F.B.I. director to be accused -- at least by some historians -- of trying to influence a presidential election, by feeding useful scraps of information on Harry S. Truman, a Democrat, to the campaign of Thomas E. Dewey, a Republican.
To his critics, Mr. Comey has twice flagrantly violated the longstanding norms of law enforcement, politicizing the F.B.I. by injecting it into a hard-fought election. His defenders say the controversy may simply show the difficulty of running a law enforcement organization as a purely professional, apolitical endeavor in an election year awash in political passions, suspicions and accusations. (Just ask Loretta E. Lynch, Mr. Comey’s boss as attorney general, who said after an airport encounter with former President Bill Clinton that drew Republican criticism that she would accept whatever the F.B.I. recommended on the Clinton email inquiry.)
In July, at a news conference that some former prosecutors now characterize as a mistake, he announced that Mrs. Clinton would not be charged in connection with her use of a private email server, but added that he believed her conduct was “extremely careless.” On Friday, he announced that agents had found additional emails that might be relevant to the investigation, raising the possibility that Mrs. Clinton’s exoneration had been premature.
Then an unrelated investigation of Anthony D. Weiner, a former congressman from New York and the estranged husband of Huma Abedin, a top Clinton aide, led to an archive of emails that agents thought might be relevant to the Clinton email matter. Mr. Comey, in an email of his own to the F.B.I. work force, made clear that he felt his July statement necessitated another public disclosure.
“We don’t ordinarily tell Congress about ongoing investigations, but here I feel an obligation to do so given that I testified repeatedly in recent months that our investigation was completed,” Mr. Comey wrote. Going public the first time, he suggested, forced him to go public a second time.
By Justice Department convention, however, Mr. Comey’s repeated public statements may have been a mistake.
Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law who specializes in legal ethics, said Mr. Comey would have been justified had he simply announced that the Clinton investigation was over. But his first mistake, Mr. Gillers said, was to go further and criticize her sloppy handling of email.
“If you decide not to go ahead with a case, you don’t say bad things about a person you have been investigating because there is no forum in which that person can defend themselves,” said Mr. Gillers, a Democrat. “He made a terrible, terrible error.”
Tuesday’s lead editorial needed little explication: “James Comey’s Big Mistake."
Four days after James Comey, the F.B.I. director, sent Congress a brief, inscrutable, election-shaking letter about emails that may or may not be new or relevant to the previously concluded investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server, his logic makes even less sense than it did on Friday.
Now, thanks to Mr. Comey’s breathtakingly rash and irresponsible decision, the Justice Department and F.B.I. are scrambling to process hundreds of thousands of emails to determine whether there is anything relevant in them before Nov. 8 -- all as the country stands by in suspense. This is not how federal investigations are conducted. In claiming to stand outside politics, Mr. Comey has instead created the hottest political football of the 2016 election.
The editors quoted former Obama attorney general Eric Holder as some fount of objectivity, and Senate minority leader Harry Reid, infamous for lying about Mitt Romney not paying taxes and then shrugging off criticism by smirking, “Romney didn’t win, did he?”
In an election that has featured the obliteration of one long-accepted political or social norm after another, it is sadly fitting that one of the final and perhaps most consequential acts was to undermine the American people’s trust in the nation’s top law enforcement agencies.
And a special “For President” section that came folded with the paper on Tuesday was pretty stark in its dueling descriptions of the candidates: “Trump vs. Clinton. The showman who played to his audience. The survivor who kept going after the prize. Our four-year journey to a signal chapter in American history."
That sharp contrasting continued in the subheads under matching profiles by Patrick Healy:
Clinton: A survivor with a steely resolve, that can inspire and inflame.
Trump: A showman with an abiding anger that ignites, and limits, his appeal.