Memos don't prove 'obstruction' — they further cement Comey's legacy as a leaker

Memos don't prove 'obstruction' — they further cement Comey's legacy as a leaker
© Greg Nash

We now have the FBI memorandums and emails drafted by James ComeyJames Brien ComeyEXCLUSIVE: Trump says exposing ‘corrupt’ FBI probe could be ‘crowning achievement’ of presidency Russia docs order sets Trump on collision with intel community Dem lawmaker jabs Trump call for transparency by asking for his tax returns MORE to document his nine interactions with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE. House Republicans lobbied the Justice Department for access to the infamous musings and then promptly released them.

Having just read Comey’s ode to “ethical leadership,” “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” I pored over this document dump with the anticipation of investigative dot-connection. From a quarter-century in the FBI, I know the agency’s paperwork; bureaucracies are built on paper. The 15 pages of these seven memos seemed certain to provide the “smoking gun” that the polarized sides of our political divide were anticipating or dreading.

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My immediate reaction? The memos are as disappointing as Geraldo Rivera’s two-hour live TV foray into Al Capone’s vault in 1986.

 

Beyond the gossip-worthy charge from Comey that Trump questioned the judgment of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, Comey’s writing showcases a wonderful flair for the descriptive that reflects his never having been an FBI agent and his inexperience in preparing testimonial or corroboration documents for the bureau.

From their earliest days at the FBI Academy, special-agent trainees are instructed to draft documents that succinctly capture the relevant, salient portions of an interview: Stick to the facts; no suppositions or opinions allowed; only describe items or utterances that demand description; anything you put on paper will be subject to scrutiny from seasoned defense attorneys. As with many things, less is more.

Comey’s memos were written in novel-like form — almost as if they were being prepared with a tell-all book in mind.

Then, he queried his deputy director, chief-of-staff and senior counsel as to the appropriateness of his classification choices for these memos. The classifications were either “secret” or “confidential.” All contained the acronym “NOFORN,” indicating “no foreign nationals” should view them. There are numerous redactions in the released documents, with four of the seven containing classified information.

And that may prove to be Comey’s Waterloo.

He has admitted to leaking a number of these documents to a surrogate, Columbia University professor and friend Daniel Richman, who then shared some with the New York Times. It has been debated whether the professor was given any documents with classified portions; if that is determined to be true, this would be problematic for Comey. Richman is now on record as Comey’s attorney  — perhaps a preemptive maneuver to shield his memo conversations with Comey under attorney-client privilege and protecting them as “confidential communications.”

In one delicious irony gleaned from the released memos, Comey assures Trump in a one-on-one dinner meeting in the Green Room at the White House that “I don’t do sneaky things. I don’t leak. I don’t do weasel moves.”

Wait. What?

The actual act of leaking involves the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive or classified information. Please, don’t make the outrageous claim that Comey was simply a “whistleblower.” We have necessary protections in place for subordinates in governmental institutions who can be sanctioned or punished for sharing information in the public’s interest.

To ludicrously suggest that James Comey, head of the premier law enforcement agency in the world, was incapable of directly confronting a bully of a president or sharing this information with the deputy attorney general, to whom he reports, defies credulity.

This suggests to me that Comey is, at his core, a “beta male.” This has nothing to do with mannerisms, appearance or physicality; it speaks to his inability to rise to the occasion and act with strength of character.

He’s afforded a benefit of the doubt for being caught off-guard in the first or second inappropriate interaction the president had with him  — but they had nine. Nine separate encounters, in which Comey shrank in size and abdicated his duty to push back, may ultimately be his legacy as FBI director.

The book tour has further contributed to his diminution. He has appeared less noble and more petty, self-serving and vindictive with each passing interview.

The memos further highlight his misplaced notion that he is, “the last honest man in Washington.” He has become a caricature of that once carefully crafted image. He is now sullied beyond repair.

He admits in his book that he can be “stubborn, prideful, overconfident, and driven by ego.” That assessment fits many of us. But none of us were occupying the directorship of the FBI during a pivotal, consequential period in our nation’s history, one demanding strict adherence to the second pillar in the FBI’s motto of “Fidelity, Bravery, and Integrity.”

With the daily dissolution of a collusion case against the president, I scoured the memos for any shred of evidence that Trump may have obstructed justice. I just can’t find it.

This matches up with Comey’s careful downplaying of the obstruction case in his TV interviews.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) assessment is that the memos exonerate Trump as well.

Trump is the antithesis of the polished, shrewd modern politician who weighs words carefully. But his oratorical clumsiness and unfamiliarity with governmental “guardrails” do not prove the necessary requirement of “intent” in an obstruction of justice case.

 

And the Michael Cohen investigation  — which many legal pundits have argued poses the greatest threat to Trump  — just saw the deputy attorney general’s advisement to Trump that he is not the target of that investigation. That admission should be a blow to “resisters” everywhere.

I don’t know where any of this may ultimately lead. But I become less convinced with each passing day that there is much tangible “there” there anymore.

It has been almost a year since James Comey’s June 8, 2017, testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee following his firing by the president. His seeming victimhood made him a darling of the media and a symbol of the #Resistance.

The next day, during a White House press conference with visiting Romanian leader Klaus Iohannis, Trump assessed the purported damage wrought by Comey’s testimony, “No collusion, no obstruction. He’s a leaker.”

With those seven words, the president perfectly summed up my assessment of the just-released Comey memos.

James A. Gagliano is a retired FBI supervisory special agent and a CNN law enforcement analyst. He also serves as an adjunct assistant professor at St. John's University and is a leadership consultant at the Thayer Leader Development Group (TLDG) at his alma mater, the United States Military Academy at West Point. Follow him on Twitter @JamesAGagliano.