Former FBI Director James Comey has a well-known history of documenting important and controversial moments – and there’s a history of those emails or memos surfacing at politically opportune times.
Trump administration officials surprised at revelations that Comey documented conversations with President Donald Trump in memos he shared with friends should have taken a clue from Comey’s past in the Bush and Obama administrations.
In 2009, The New York Times published stories on how top Bush administration and Justice Department officials signed off the use of torture on detainees suspected of terrorist links.
One story was based on emails leaked to the Times shows that Comey had written to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in 2005, arguing that the torture tactics were a bad idea and that Gonzales and other Justice officials would regret being pushed by the White House to approve them.
At the time the stories were published, Obama Justice Department officials marveled at the fortuitous timing of someone close to Comey coming to rescue of his larger-than-life, good guy reputation.
That episode led Matt Miller, who led communications for Attorney General Eric Holder, to tweet in the wake of Trump’s tape threat against Comey last week that the former FBI director was well known to document things religiously. It also served as notice to Obama Justice officials when Comey became FBI director to always be mindful that Comey would likely document any disagreements that could end up being the subject of congressional investigations.
Comey is better known for famously testifying 10 years ago this week at a Senate hearing, describing for the first time in public a confrontation with the Bush White House over the legality of a surveillance program.
Versions of the story had been leaked years earlier.
Obama-era Justice Department officials say they believe Comey likely documented his disputes with superiors and big moments during the former administration.
During the Obama administration, Comey’s disagreements with major decisions frequently spilled out in public – for instance, his opposition to Holder’s lenient treatment of David Petraeus, the former general who mishandled classified information and lied to the FBI, and over the department’s focus on police misconduct after the shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri.
Brian Fallon, who served as public affairs director under Holder, said the assumption among Obama officials was that Comey kept memos and records of emails.
“It would not be a surprise to learn Comey’s penchant for memorializing things included emails to his aides about input he provided in meetings or his feelings on key policy issues where he disagreed with the direction the administration took. But that is qualitatively different than a memo-to-file intended to preserve evidence as part of an ongoing criminal investigation,” said Fallon, who also worked as a spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“Moreover, because Comey is no shrinking violet, a lot of the disagreements he had during the Obama years spilled out into public view in real time, as happened on issues like encryption and with his comments on the so-called ’Ferguson effect.’”