Comey is the opposite of J. Edgar Hoover

James Comey hearing meeting details sot_00003516
James Comey hearing meeting details sot_00003516


    Comey: I took notes because Trump might lie


Comey: I took notes because Trump might lie 00:45

Story highlights

  • Tim Naftali: The Comey hearing shed light on how the former FBI director handled his interactions with the President
  • A key moment came when Comey admitted to instructing a friend to leak his memo detailing his communication with Trump

The former director of the Richard Nixon library, Timothy Naftali is a CNN presidential historian who teaches history and public policy at NYU. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)Today, James Comey became the first FBI director ever to admit to being a public whistleblower. At a key moment in the over two hours of testimony, Comey volunteered that through a friend at Columbia Law School, he decided to leak the contents of his contacts with President Trump to the press (after the President lied about the circumstances surrounding Comey's firing).

James Comey really is the "anti-Hoover" and this is not a matter of historical interpretation. Comey shared with the senators, and the millions watching on television or their iThings that the infamous FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was the negative example he had in mind as he tried to puzzle out how to deal with President Trump
He said he told Trump about the Steele dossier because "I was worried very much about being in kind of a J. [Edgar] Hoover-type situation. I didn't want him thinking I was briefing him on this to sort of hang it over him in some way." In other words, he had not wanted to practice the subtle blackmail of the powerful that had kept Hoover in office for five decades.
    Tim Naftali
    Comey's understanding of the history of the bureau under Hoover is a likely Rosetta Stone for understanding the controversial steps he took, not only in the Russia investigation but also with regard to the investigation of Hillary Clinton's email server. In the 1970s, the public learned of how Hoover had politicized the bureau, and in the decades since, the FBI had successfully fought to recover public trust as an apolitical, nonpartisan organization.
    Comey contorted himself and the bureau in the toxic political environment of 2016 and early 2017 to maintain that trust. In today's testimony, Comey also explained how concerns about the judgment of the Obama Justice Department had motivated him to make the public statement in July 2016 regarding the status of the Clinton email investigation.
    It is safe to say that no director of an American investigative body has faced as many agonizing decisions in as little time as James Comey. To explain why he decided to leak to the press, Comey told the committee:
    "[T]the president tweeted on Friday [May 12] after I got fired that I better hope there's not tapes. I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday night because it didn't dawn on me originally, that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might be a tape. My judgment was, I need to get that out into the public square. I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter."
    Comey did not explain why the existence of presidential recordings should compel the release of his own record.
    After all, Richard Nixon's tapes confirmed John W. Dean's testimony of that president's role in obstructing justice, but perhaps he worried that this president would release an adulterated or edited version of their conversation. So, he wanted his version out first
    Comey did make clear, however, that he had a goal in mind beyond personal vindication. He believed the situation -- created by the President's actions -- required the appointment of a special counsel. Some may quibble with Comey's choice of tactics, but what is indisputable is that yet again President Trump had hurt his presidency with a tweet.
    The President's defenders have already jumped on Comey's acknowledged leaking to attack the former FBI director's credibility, but as Comey made clear, he was motivated by concern about the honesty of this President. Indeed, Comey's testimony confirmed to the American people that up close he observed something odd and deeply unsettling about the 45th president.
    The reason Comey took notes on his conversations with President Trump was that, unlike George W. Bush and Barack Obama, he didn't trust this president.
    Even more damaging to the President is the fact that at today's hearing all of the senators, regardless of party, conveyed nothing but trust in James Comey. From the moment the chair of the committee, Sen. Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, introduced Comey as "Jim," it was clear this would be a friendly hearing in which the star witness was held in almost universal respect as a fine public servant.
    There were, nevertheless, some partisan moments. A few defenders of the President pressed Comey to rule out the most dangerous theories of collusion in 2016 and obstruction in 2017. And each would be disappointed. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida urged Comey to be precise about which investigation he thought Donald Trump hoped would go away -- the Michael Flynn perjury case or the entire Russia investigation.
    Comey said that he felt the President was only referring to the Flynn perjury case, but the fact remained that the President had interceded in an ongoing criminal investigation. Tom Cotton of Arkansas later asked Comey point-blank whether he thinks Donald Trump colluded with Russia. Comey's response? "That's a question I don't think I should answer in an open setting."
    Tom Cotton was not the first senator whose question Mr. Comey politely refused to answer lest he reveal national security or privacy information. Throughout the hearing, we were reminded that there is a world of information about the status of the Russia investigation that we do not know
    Indeed, our best glimpses into that compartment of information in this hearing came from the other senators' questions. Sen. Kamala Harris's questions seemed to foreshadow future revelations of as yet unacknowledged meetings between Trump associates and the Russians and of the destruction of potentially important evidence.
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    Despite the drama, today's hearing was about much more than political theater and public fascination with the most famous FBI director since Hoover. Both the Senate Intelligence Committee Chair, Sen. Burr and the ranking minority member, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, made clear to viewers that the Russia investigation is not fake news or some political witch hunt.
    Both stressed the importance of "get[ting] to the bottom" of Russia's intervention in our 2016 election and the possibility that the Kremlin had help from Americans. Regardless of what defenses may come from the Trump White House in the days to come, the Russia investigation and the issues of collusion in 2016 and obstruction of justice in 2017 will not be going away any time soon.
    Trump's tweeting and James Comey's conscience made sure of that.