WASHINGTON — In a matter of four days, the man with the unassailable standing as director of the nation’s most powerful law enforcement agency, has become the target of unrelenting rebuke by the very people who once celebrated James Comey’s appointment three years ago to lead the FBI.
Perhaps most damaging so far was the criticism leveled by nearly 100 former Justice Department officials who characterized the director’s decision to notify Congress of a new review of emails that could be related to the previously closed Hillary Clinton inquiry as nothing short of “astonishing" so close to a presidential election.
“We cannot recall a prior instance where a senior Justice Department official — Republican or Democrat — has, on the eve of a major election, issued a public statement where the mere disclosure of information may impact the election’s outcome,’’ the former officials, including former attorney general Eric Holder, wrote.
The scathing public evaluation of Comey’s decision, which also defied long-standing Justice Department policy not to take actions in advance of an election that might appear to interfere with its outcome, threatens to cast a permanent shadow on the remaining seven years of the director’s term, some current and former government officials said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee who has been one of Comey's most vocal advocates, expressed deep concerns Monday that the FBI's institutional integrity hung in the balance.
“I have great personal respect for Director Comey, and I sincerely believe that he is a man of integrity, independence, and good intentions, but I have grave concerns that the credibility of the FBI could be damaged in immeasurable ways,'' Cummings said.
The congressman's statement is extraordinary given that this summer he was lauding the director for, in part, Comey's defense of his decision not to recommend criminal charges against Clinton and others over their handling of classified information.
"I don't know whether your family is watching this,'' Cummings told Comey during a more than four-hour appearance before the House panel in July, "but I hope that they are as proud of you as I am."
Yet the gusting political forces inextricably linked to the email inquiry and Comey's role in it, some suggest, thrusts him into a potentially untenable position, especially if Clinton wins the White House.
"If you are President-elect Clinton, how do you put this behind you, particularly if this whole matter is still pending when you take office?'' said Ron Hosko, a former assistant FBI director and head of the bureau's criminal division who supports Comey. "How can you have an effective relationship if every time you are in the same room together this shadow looms?
"This is a fraught, perilous path that he's on,'' Hosko said. "I think he had to go into this with eyes wide open; I don't think he took this lightly.''
Aides have said that Comey considered counsel from senior executives and the top investigators assigned to the concluded Clinton email inquiry before making the decision. The bulk of the newly discovered material, more than 600,000 emails, however, weighed heavily on the director who had told a congressional panel in September that no substantial information had come to light to warrant a new review. The risk of that information leaking, either before or after the election, was viewed to be more potentially damaging to government institutions than to acknowledge its existence last Friday.
The potentially new emails, linked to top Clinton aide Huma Abedin, were found in early October during a search of a laptop she shared with her estranged husband, former New York congressman Anthony Weiner. The former lawmaker is the subject of separate FBI inquiry into his sexually charged communications with a 15-year-old girl.
Federal investigators have since obtained a warrant to search through the tranche of Abedin emails to determine if they have any bearing on the previous Clinton inquiry. It is unclear whether the review can be completed by Election Day next Tuesday, a process that has reunited many of the investigators who worked on the initial Clinton inquiry. While the new review involves a voluminous number of communications, an official familiar with the matter said authorities have not totally foreclosed the possibility that the task can be completed before much of the nation goes to the polls.
In letters to congressional leaders Monday, the Justice Department pledged that the review would be completed as "expeditiously as possible.''
But some, including one former top Justice Department official, said that the management of the Clinton email investigation has been fraught since July, when Attorney General Loretta Lynch agreed to accept Comey's recommendation on the case's outcome. That decision followed the disclosure of Lynch's impromptu meeting with former president Bill Clinton aboard her Justice Department aircraft while both were on the tarmac of the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
Lynch has said the email case was not discussed during the meeting, but the appearance of a possible conflict prompted the decision to cede authority in the case to Comey. The attorney general later signed off on Comey's recommendation after his July announcement in which he also described the former secretary of State's conduct as "extremely careless.''
Last week, Lynch recommended against Comey's notification to Congress regarding the newly discovered emails, but the FBI director, an official familiar with the matter said, felt compelled to act to correct previous congressional testimony indicating that no other information in the Clinton case was being reviewed.
The former top Justice Department official, who asked not be identified because of his close relationship with some of the key players involved, said Lynch's original decision to defer to Comey forced him to do something out of character for an FBI director: essentially, make a prosecutorial judgment, a decision that should rest with the attorney general or deputy attorney general.
If the attorney general felt the need to cede some authority in the case, the official said, it should have transferred to Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. The official said the decision handing Comey the bulk of the responsibility only complicated the handling of the case.
Holder agreed in an essay published Monday in TheWashington Post, asserting that the initial decision in the Clinton investigation was not Comey's to make.
"If the attorney general determined that she could not participate in the process, the deputy attorney general, Sally Yates, a respected, apolitical, career prosecutor, should have stood in her place,'' Holder wrote. "Any comments should have come from the attorney general or deputy attorney general, the people who always communicate prosecutorial decisions made by the department.''
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, meanwhile, would "neither defend nor criticize'' Comey's actions Monday.
Earnest said that President Obama, who nominated Comey to succeed longtime FBI Director Robert Mueller, regards the current director as "a man of integrity and a man of good character.''
While Earnest said there was an expectation that Justice officials follow long-standing department practice and policy not to interfere with the political process, he said the president "doesn't believe Director Comey is secretly trying to influence the election.''
"He's got a very difficult job,'' Earnest said.
Since Comey's decision became public Friday, prompting the storm of criticism that has yet to abate, a bureau official familiar with the director's thinking said that there have been no second thoughts.
The director knew what was coming, the official said.