The story has become legend: On March 10, 2004, Deputy Attorney General James Comey got word that White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andy Card were headed to George Washington University Hospital to confront Comey's boss, John Ashcroft, there suffering from severe gallstone pancreatitis, about extending counterterrorism surveillance efforts within the United States in extremely questionable ways that very likely were unconstitutional.
Comey, in a scene that could've come from a Tom Clancy novel, raced to beat them there and explain his position to his superior. Moments later, Gonzales and Card arrived, only to find Ashcroft unwilling to sign on to their request, for the attorney general trusted the reasoning and integrity of his deputy more than he trusted the staff of the White House.
Comey, it seemed, had risked his job and his future to defend the Constitution. He even went so far (along with FBI Director Robert Mueller) as to threaten to resign if the George W. Bush administration continued to eavesdrop on Americans. And he had prevailed.
At least, that's the story. And while the part about Comey rushing to Ashcroft's sickbed and threatening to resign is true, what's often left out is that both Comey and Mueller later caved to most of the Bush administration's demands.
As the The New York Times put it in 2013:
Despite the showdown, in which Mr. Comey refused the request of White House aides to reauthorize a program for eavesdropping without warrants, he was later willing to go along with most of the Bush administration’s surveillance operations. He and his allies, including Mr. Mueller, eventually backed down from their threats to resign in protest after the White House made modest adjustments.
Comey also approved "enhanced interrogation techniques" (torture), including waterboarding, signing a memo OK'ing the practice. Later, when being confirmed as FBI director in 2013, Comey denounced these abuses.
But, of course, at that point it was politically expedient to do so — not exactly a strong display of moral courage.
Fast-forward to July 2016, when Comey held his infamous press conference, during which, after announcing that he was recommending that no charges be filed against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump defends indicted GOP congressman GOP lawmaker says he expects to be indicted over FBI investigation Why it's time for conservatives to accept the 2020 election results and move on MORE, he felt the need to opine that she and her staff had been "extremely careless."
At the time, many pundits pointed out how Comey's comments could be used against Clinton in the election, but few noted how dangerous a precedent Comey was setting. Comey's job was to recommend charges or not recommend them — not to give his personal opinion.
It's the press's job to expose candidates and the voters' job to judge them; law enforcement figures shouldn't use their offices to promote personal views.
(We saw a similar incident recently, when Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance decided to lambast New York Mayor Bill de Blasio despite finding no way to charge him with a crime. Both Comey and Vance found ways to damage candidates without actually charging them with anything.)
But, of course, in case you don't remember, Comey didn't stop there. In what can only be construed as a gross misuse of his authority, he used his position as FBI director to drop a figurative bomb on Clinton's candidacy just 11 days before the election — sending a letter to Congress informing them that the FBI was looking again at Clinton emails — violating longstanding FBI policies that prohibited the bureau from doing anything close to an election that might effect said election.
Worse still, Comey's bombshell proved to be a nothing-burger, the only real effect of which was to make Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE president. Worse than that, while Comey felt the need to reopen a wound for Clinton, he somehow did not report on the fact that Trump's campaign was under investigation for something much, much worse: colluding with a foreign adversary to influence the election.
Now, in the midst of investigations into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia, many liberals are turning to Comey as their savior. Perhaps hoping against hope, they believe that he is some paragon of integrity who will redeem himself by getting to the bottom of things and exposing Team Trump.
Don't count on it.
I'm not saying that Comey won't prove effective. Truly, I don't know. But I do know not to trust a guy who built his reputation on what's largely a myth, OK'd waterboarding when it was convenient to him and gifted the election to Trump.
Of course, if we can't trust Comey, what are we to do?
The answer to that is: pressure. Maintain intense, intense pressure — on Comey, on the House, on the Senate and even on the press, for we need the media to do its job and force the hand of our representatives.
Or maybe we just put all our confidence in James Comey, picker of presidents.
How's that worked out in the past?
Ross Rosenfeld is an educational reformer, historian and political pundit who has written for Newsday, the New York Daily News, Charles Scribner's, MacMillan, Newsweek.com, Primedia and others. He is a frequent contributor to The Hill.
The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.